Voyagers

James Paradis

  • Sir Joseph Banks by Charles Lyte
    David and Charles, 248 pp, £10.50, October 1980, ISBN 0 7153 7884 8
  • The Heyday of Natural History: 1820-1870 by Lynn Barber
    Cape, 320 pp, £9.50, October 1980, ISBN 0 224 01448 X
  • A Vision of Eden by Marianne North
    Webb and Bower, 240 pp, £8.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 906671 18 3

Amateur naturalists of the 19th century found their intellectual claims to the territory of nature weakened by several scientific developments. The most important development concerned the language of science. The specialists who were now writing about natural science increasingly refined their terms in order to build a literary structure of professional knowledge. By degrees, they located the authority of natural history in technical dialects removed from the vernacular of common experience. Their huge word systems – those of the botanical, zoological and geological sciences – slowly consumed the familiar objects of the landscape. The products of analysis and logic, rather than of an intuitive sense of the whole, these word systems resolved the unity of nature into classes of objects, which were further subdivided into structures whose elements were assigned standard definitions. The book of nature was thus transformed into a textbook which only the most single-minded were likely to master.

There are many examples of such technical inventory-taking among the works of the early naturalist-scientists, but the modern taxonomical beginning was made in Linnaeus’s Species Plantarum (1753). Linnaeus consolidated previous nomenclature schemes in botany by adopting an artificial classification system. He defined the system in a standard terminology derived from the sexual characteristics of plants. The basic unit of the Linnaean system was the binary name, which combined the generic name with a species epithet. The Linnaean innovation of constructing an interlocking system of classes, terms and names was so significant, William Whewell argued in his Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences (1840), that modern systemic science could be said to begin with Linnaeus.

Whewell wrote at a time when a wide variety of new lexical systems had been accepted as the matrices of scientific discourse. Each system, whether in botany, geology or comparative anatomy, gave identity and focus to a field of scientific inquiry. Specialist languages helped to consolidate groups of inquirers who represented discrete scientific disciplines. The highly Latinate and abstract accounts of much of the specialist’s work were normally fit only for the journals of professional organisations, which were formed partly to create new reading audiences. The first specialist society was, appropriately, the Linnaean Society, founded in 1788 around Linnaeus’s remarkable botanical collection, which was purchased for £1000 by James Edward Smith in 1783 and brought to London over the protest of all Swedish science.

By the beginning of the Victorian era, the amateur tradition of the country naturalist and nature-appreciator – a tradition given great dignity and prestige by Gilbert White – had become something quite different from the activity of the professional scientist. In his Reflections on the Decline of Science in England (1830), Charles Babbage dismissed the amateur tradition of science as wholly inadequate to the serious advancement of scientific knowledge. As young men now applied themselves to the study of law, he argued, future scientists must devote themselves to the mastery of their respective disciplines. Responding to the call of Babbage and others for a new professionalism in the sciences, researchers and academicians from around the country gathered at York in September 1831 to form the British Association for the Advancement of Science. One important aim of the Association was to give stronger impulse and more systematic direction to scientific inquiry in England.

The predominantly rural and individualist tradition of nature-appreciation, which had long blended comfortably with the activities of the poet and natural theologian, was slowly made to seem quaint and unmethodical as urban bodies of collaborative researchers gave their disciplined professional lives to the extension of detailed systems of knowledge. Even Darwin, who drew from the traditions of both the amateur and the specialist, wrote for circles of experts. The decline in reputation of amateurs such as Sir Joseph Banks and James Audubon, both of whom had counted themselves as naturalists, was largely the result of their failure to contribute to the growing body of specialist literature.

Coleridge, a careful student of the Linnaean tradition, objected that the ‘epidemic’ application of nomenclatures to organic nature was a trivialisation of natural space. In The Friend, he warned that Linnaeus’s superficial name-arranging was so devoted to efficient causes as to leave no place for final causes – the highest contemplative realm of the mind. Philosophically reinforcing the observations Wordsworth had made in the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads about the emotional sterility of the sciences, Coleridge charged that Linnaeus had reduced plant sexuality to a mnemonic principle of classification by means of which ‘one man’s experience may be communicated to others, and the objects safely reasoned on while absent’. His system failed to achieve the dimensions of a philosophy, since it did not reveal the ‘constitutive nature and inner necessity of sex itself’. The Linnaean code, he concluded, was little more than a lexical accumulation, ‘a huge catalogue’ masquerading as a science.

Equally basic to Coleridge’s objections was the challenge of scientific language to the authority of the senses. The primacy of sensation, so vital to the Romantic vision of nature, had long been suspect in the sciences. Bacon, in his Novum Organum, doubted that the senses, unaided by experiment or instruments, could arrive at exact knowledge. Some two centuries later, John Herschel, in his textbook, Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy (1831), warned the novice that the human sense apparatus was too crude and subjective an instrument to discover anything of scientific moment. The senses, he argued, must be disciplined by the methods and language of the scientific observer.

The restriction of one’s response to nature to the formal categories and sanctioned terms of a discipline all but removed the private dimensions from professional scientific literature. Never before had so much been written about physical nature in such abstract and generally unintelligible terms. Nonetheless, visible nature continued to provide an essential emotional and spiritual stimulus to Victorian art and religion and to occupy the attention of many amateur naturalists, whose knowledge of natural history no longer even approximated that of the specialist community. Amateur and popular science thus emerged in the 19th century in a variety of modes. Of the two main trends in popularisation, one continued the highly personal, sometimes naive effort to reflect upon nature as a stimulus to the aesthetic or moral sensibility; the other sought to translate the new truths of the sciences into demotic terms. Occasionally, as in Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, the two trends merged.

The oldest of the popular modes was that of nature-appreciation. This informal tradition, of which Gilbert White’s The Natural History of Selborne (1789) was an acknowledged masterpiece, produced such works as James Audubon’s Birds of America, George Henry Lewes’s Sea-Side Studies, Hugh Miller’s The Old Red Sandstone and innumerable commercial contemplations of flowers, shells and natural novelties. Alternately artistic and sentimental in impulse, the tradition of nature-appreciation inspired works that were genuinely meditative as well as others that were commercial and moralistic.

The second, more pragmatic line of popularisation developed in the form of textbooks and manuals, often written to introduce the layman to a new technical field. Field manuals on birds, rocks and plants became familiar companions to many an amateur. ‘To a person uninstructed in natural history,’ Thomas Huxley observed, ‘his country or sea-side stroll is a walk through a gallery filled with wonderful works of art, nine-tenths of which have their faces turned toward the wall.’ Elementary lessons on geology, astronomy, physiology and numerous other fields were often prepared from the notes of public lectures delivered by professionals, as was the case with Huxley’s Lessons in Elementary Physiology and John Tyndall’s Fragments of Science. Charles Lyell’s highly readable Elements of Geology was a condensation of his three-volume Principles to make a more manageable presentation of current geological theory. There was also a considerable variety of philosophical and theological works which studied the discontinuities that arose as the language of the sciences excluded final causes from the study of nature. This indeed was the primary area of controversy, a popular, if academic pastime.

The career of Sir Joseph Banks reflects the slow erosion of respectable dilettantism. With his attendant expert, Dr Daniel Solander, a gifted pupil of Linnaeus, Banks joined Cook’s Transit of Venus expedition to Tahiti aboard the Endeavour in 1768-71, outspending the Admiralty by a factor of two and a half in outfitting his personal entourage of draftsmen, assistants and servants. On his return to England, Banks reigned as one of London’s chief raconteurs, a man of legendary travels whose reputation as England’s chief botaniser and scientific voyager drew him to the centre of society. Within a year of his return, he had been introduced to George III by Joseph Pringle, the President of the Royal Society, and had become an acquaintance of Dr Johnson and a welcome member of his club. Banks liberally applied his wealth to assembling at his London house a parlour society of gentlemen amateurs, natural philosophers, foreign visitors and artists.

Meanwhile, the much-heralded collection of foreign plant exotica, so enthusiastically gathered on the Endeavour voyage, became a labour never quite completed. Hearing that Banks and Solander were contemplating a second voyage with Cook a mere year after their return, Linnaeus was unable to sleep. He wrote to John Ellis, his English correspondent: ‘How vain are the hopes of man! Whilst the whole botanical world, like myself, has been looking for the most transcendent benefits to our science, from unrivalled exertions of your countrymen, all this matchless and truly astonishing collection, such as has never been seen before, nor may ever be seen again, is to be put aside untouched, to be thrust into some corner, to become, perhaps, the prey of insects and of destruction.’ With the death of Solander in 1782, the 20 manuscript volumes of plates and description, all of it in Solander’s hand, were laid aside. It is doubtful whether Banks had grasp enough of the collection or the necessary learning to complete the work.

Further evidence of the trials of scientific amateurism is seen in Banks’s extraordinary long tenure as President of the Royal Society, from 1778 to his death in 1820. Banks replaced Joseph Pringle and dominated the Council, of which only eight of the 21 members were men of science. His assumption of power was unsuccessfully challenged by some physicist and mathematician members, who considered him a man with no credentials in science. Wolcot, the lampoonist, who wrote under the name of Peter Pindar, was probably not alone in finding Banks a study in vanity:

an intellectual flea Hopping on Science’s broad, bony back.

Although Banks did much to promote the international image of the Royal Society during his 42-year tenure as its President, he seems incorrectly to have understood the underlying forces encouraging specialisation. He supported the formation of the Linnaean Society in 1788 and was one of the founders of the Horticultural Society in 1804. Yet he opposed the formation of the first research laboratory, the Royal Institution, in 1800, of the Geological Society (1807), which in some twenty-five years rose from 13 fellows to five hundred, and of the Astronomical Society (1820). That his opposition was unsuccessful is a measure of the strength of the movement towards specialisation.

Charles Lyte’s Sir Joseph Banks: 18th-century Explorer, Botanist and Entrepreneur is a work of popular history. Nearly half of it is devoted to Banks’s voyage with Cook to Tahiti; the remaining chapters are accounts of Banks’s two other voyages and of his eventful, if sometimes noisy public life. A chapter is devoted to Omai, the Tahitian youth who was the sensation of the 1774 London social season. Banks escorted the youth around London and, Sir John Cullum noted, appeared to keep him ‘as an object of curiosity, to observe the workings of an untutored, unenlightened mind’. Something similar could be said of Lyte’s treatment of Banks. Although not balanced, his journalistic account nicely gauges the social spectacle of Banks’s life. It suggests what some critics have long held: that Banks was a promoter whose talents were unlikely to have shone anywhere but in the still politically impotent domain of barely-organised science.

Historians of science have puzzled over Banks’s achievement. He was undoubtedly the premier scientific voyager of his time, having gone out first to Newfoundland and Labrador (1766), then to Tahiti, New Zealand and Australia (1768-71), and finally to Iceland (1772). Like many enthusiastic amateurs, his idea of science found expression in the collecting of items by categories. He lacked the confidence and industry necessary to analyse and report his results. After becoming scientific adviser to the Royal Gardens at Kew in 1773, he sent Francis Masson all over the world in search of new plant species and established Kew as an international clearing-house for seeds. He promoted the voyages of Mungo Park to Sumatra and Africa and the voyage of William Hooker to Iceland. He amassed an immense collection of scientific works, now housed at the British Museum. On all these matters, Mr Lyte touches too briefly. Only a short and inconclusive chapter is devoted to Banks’s work as President of the Royal Society, and no use is made of the substantial collection of Banks material, catalogued by Warren Dawson in 1958, that is currently held at Kew Gardens.

Lynn Barber’s The Heyday of Natural History: 1820-1870 is a colourful account of the Victorian popularisation and commercialisation of natural history. Popular natural history, as Ms Barber presents it, was an extension of Joseph Banks’s drawing-room science, which was now taken up by a growing urban middle class nostalgic for the countryside. Its members had the means to buy the handsomely-illustrated volumes of James Audubon, William Swainson and John Gould; the parlours to accommodate the commercial gadgetry of aquaria and Wardian fern cases; and the time to attend popular lectures, visit museums and explore marine life along the sea coast.

In this sense, nature became a leisure commodity that helped to satisfy the appetite of the Victorian middle class for novelty and homily. As Ms Barber says, ‘buying a book for the sake of its pretty pictures was considered vaguely immoral, or at any rate extravagant, but if those pictures happened to illustrate important and revealing truths about nature – if they were in fact illustrations of God’s benevolent design – then their purchase was justified.’ The part played by commercialisation constitutes one of the real insights of Ms Barber’s work.

She arranges her material into topical and biographical chapters that enable her to discuss both the apostles of popular Victorian natural history and their primary creeds. To the extent that she is a historian, Ms Barber is part historian of taste and part popular historian, with an eye for the extravagant and a good sense of humour. Her biographies emphasise eccentricities of personality rather than substantive accomplishment, ideas or social background. Her chapter ‘The Eccentric Squire of Walton Hall’, for example, dwells on the popular naturalist Charles Waterton’s bizarre habits and opinions – his obsession about the Hanoverian rat, his habit of greeting visitors on all fours and snapping at their feet, his erratic programmes of local charity, his obstinate criticisms of James Audubon and so on. Her amusing chapter on Frank Buckland, which draws heavily on G.H.O. Burgess’s The Curious World of Frank Buckland, is called ‘The Pioneer of Zoophagy’ and recounts the main events of Buckland’s public life as one of the most celebrated popular naturalists of the Victorian era, a man who did not hesitate to dine on rodents, crocodile, rhinoceros and giraffe.

True to the amateur tradition she is chronicling, she is given to making rather sweeping generalisations which may disturb the historian. She argues that popular natural history was exclusively a naive tradition with very little factual or intellectual content. This leads her to state flatly that Victorian natural-history books were not written to teach their readers the facts of natural history – an assertion that ignores the great number of field manuals, published popular lectures, and introductory studies that were sold to the public. She states elsewhere that ‘the plain fact was that natural theology was basically inimical to scientific inquiry’: yet John Herschel, Charles Lyell, Richard Owen, Alfred Wallace and many other men of science pursued their scientific work in the conviction that there was real theological grandeur in the immensity and intricate designs of a scientifically-perceived creation. She notes that the period of natural history’s greatest popularity was between 1817 and 1859, when ‘almost no major breakthroughs [in biology] were made’ and suggests on the basis of this undemonstrated observation that ‘the lack of serious scientific advance ... made the popular addiction to natural history possible.’ It’s a perfunctory argument, since scientific advance was increasingly carried out in terms that had little meaning for – and, thus, little likelihood of interfering with – the public.

Like Mr Lyte, Ms Barber is a populariser who finds her true element in spectacle. She depends heavily in many chapters on other, more scholarly studies. Although her scope and intentions are quite different from those of the social historian David Elliston Allen, she has clearly benefited from the distinctions and insights of his lively social histories, The Naturalist in Britain (1976) and The Victorian Fern Craze (1969). Most of her biographical portraits draw heavily on other published biographies, rather than on her own research in archives and public records. Her chapter on Sir Roderick Murchison, for example, draws 20 of 25 citations from Archibald Geikie’s Life of Sir Roderick Impey Murchtson (1875). This dependence on other published studies often obscures her own point of view, and her book, consequently, lacks unity of authorial perspective.

Nineteenth-century amateur art and natural history were in many respects happily wedded in the paintings of Marianne North, certainly one of the most remarkable voyagers and botanical artists of the century. A Vision of Eden: The Life and Work of Marianne North brings together for the first time portions of Miss North’s private travel journal and a handsomely-reproduced selection of her botanical paintings. These paintings of the world’s great flora, a monument to the popular tradition of natural-history illustration, are now housed at the Marianne North Gallery at Kew Gardens. Miss North privately financed the gallery in 1880.

Not only was Miss North a gifted amateur botanist, whose knowledge of botany helped to create the realistic detail of her paintings, but she was also a realist who insisted on painting flora in their natural settings so as to achieve an authentic sense of place and scale. Her numerous voyages to distant countries, her artistic respect for environment and native light, deeply impressed men such as Darwin and Hooker, who had themselves made extended and difficult voyages to study the flora and fauna of the world. From Darwin, who had invited her to Down in 1880, some two years before his death, she drew personal inspiration. ‘He was, in my eyes,’ she recorded, ‘the greatest living, most truthful, as well as the most unselfish and modest of men.’ These were the qualities she most respected, the same qualities that characterised her own noble life of self-deprivation.

What moved Marianne North in middle age to begin her succession of solitary journeys that was to extend over nearly fifteen years, from 1871 to 1885, and to take her to Canada and the United States, Jamaica, South America, Australia, India, Africa, Indonesia and Japan, in search of fit botanical subjects for her canvas? To some degree, her motives were deeply private. With the death in 1869 of her father, who had been MP for Hastings, she lost ‘the one friend and companion’ of her 40 years. ‘He was from first to last,’ she recollected, ‘the one idol and friend of my life, and apart from him I had little pleasure and no secrets.’ The severity of her loss seems to have left little to recommend life in England to her. ‘I wished to be alone, I could not bear to talk of him or of anything else. As soon as the household at Hastings was broken up, I went straight to Mentone to devote myself to painting from nature, and [to] try to learn from the lively world which surrounded me there how to make that work henceforth the master of my life.’

Miss North’s extended labour was also motivated by the old amateur naturalist desire to give testimony in palpable detail to the splendour of natural objects. From the early days of her extended journeys to Europe and the Middle East with her father, she had long ‘dreamed of going to some tropical country to paint its peculiar vegetation on the spot in natural abundant luxuriance’. This desire to give body and visual context to those same objects of the naturalist’s taxonomical distinctions reflected the humanising impulse of the popular tradition of natural history.

Darwin himself had felt the inadequacy of his own specialist terminology in describing nature. On his last stroll at Bahia on the coast of Brazil, on the eve of the Beagle’s departure for England, he remarked, with quiet regret: ‘Learned naturalists describe these scenes by naming a multitude of objects and mentioning some characteristic feature of each. To a learned traveller, this possibly may communicate some definite ideas; but who else from seeing a plant in a herbarium can imagine its appearance when growing in its native soil. Who, from seeing choice plants in a hot house, can multiply some into the dimensions of forest trees, or crowd others into an entangled mass?’ The same feeling of insufficiency inspired Marianne North to follow her naturalist predecessors out to the world’s great forests, plains and mountain ranges, and to attempt to re-create the visual unity of the mass. The collection of paintings at her Pavilion, which she rearranged in 1885 according to the geographical distribution of plants, was in perfect keeping with the international spirit at Kew.

Miss North’s travel journal contains very little private reflection: it documents, rather, a life of asceticism, a life of self-denial in pursuit of her ideal. Little attention is devoted to describing the individuals and landscapes she encounters: everything seems to have been given to her art. From continent to continent, she moves resolutely on, short passages often accounting for great distances she has placed behind her. Yet the narrative has a stately, meditative quality, creating a mood that embodies the vastness of her enterprise.

She has a fine sense of humour and an immense, though generalised sympathy for the people and places she discovers. One is not surprised to learn that her most lasting attachment is to an Indian Sanskrit scholar, Burnell, who helped identify and assemble subjects for her series of delicate paintings of plants sacred to the religions of India. She slips quietly into the byways of each country, creating sympathy wherever she goes among people who seem instinctively to understand the dignity and elegance of her desire to paint the world’s flora. They send her flower clippings, accompany her to outposts, lend her their cottages and palaces, guide her to hidden places.

The paintings themselves do not represent any single style, but are a combination of idealistic, impressionistic masses of foliage and strikingly realistic representations of complex floral detail. One gathers from her forest scenes from Western Australia, Tasmania, India and Brazil an authentic feeling of jungle density and complexity of plant integration. On the whole, her art embodies masculine qualities of dimension and strength. Giant sequoias, gums, talipot palms and beeches convey a feeling of immense power. Most of her landscapes treat geological and botanical elements as a continuum, reflecting an awareness of total environment. Often some intricate floral detail hovers a mere arm’s distance away, against a great ocean or mountain vista and a broad expanse of sky. The background detail, however, is typically hurried and unfinished. Her floral arrangements of wild-flowers are riotous, unkempt splashes of colour, set against sombre greens and even darker backgrounds, giving the whole a fine sense of depth. She has little feeling for zoological form and colour, her occasional insects, birds and small mammals seeming to be so many afterthoughts.

Marianne North’s work remains a fine testimony to the Victorian discovery of the immensity of physical nature. Following the trails of the century’s great naturalists, she claimed for the artist the same universal subject-matter that had been appropriated by the natural sciences. A fit epilogue for her art is found in Alexander von Humboldt’s observation: ‘In the ancient world, nations, and the distinctions of their civilisation, formed the principal figures on the canvas; in the new, man and his productions almost disappear amid the stupendous display of wild and gigantic nature.’