Plantsmen

David Allen

  • The John Tradescants: Gardeners to the Rose and Lily Queen by Prudence Leith-Ross
    Owen, 320 pp, £20.00, March 1984, ISBN 0 7206 0612 8
  • Sydney Parkinson: Artist of Cook’s ‘Endeavour’ Voyage edited by D.J. Carr
    Croom Helm, 300 pp, £29.95, March 1984, ISBN 0 7099 0794 X

Gardeners and, even less, flower painters are not usually thought of as leading adventurous lives. Their pursuits above all others are suggestive of peacefulness, of contented days quietly tucked away in hothouses and arbours, with no greater dangers to contend with than pricks from rose-bushes or stings from wasps. Yet it has never been like that entirely. Someone had to seek out that great variety of plant life in the first place, and the best people to do so were the plantsmen themselves: they alone knew what was most likely to flourish in the particular conditions they were able to offer back at home, they alone had the motivation to penetrate the more unpleasant portions of the wilds and the patience to emerge with the necessary cultivable material. Not a few of them, in consequence, have fallen prey to the hazards and suffered injuries, disease or even death.

The exploits of some of these professional plant-hunters have given rise over the years to a special branch of literature, a cross between Gardening and Travel, in which the emphasis is on the routes followed, the arduousness of the journeys, and the species met with – rather than on the personalities of the individuals concerned. For most of it has been based on the accounts which the collectors themselves have set down, in manuscript or print: until very recently it has not on the whole been a field for primary research. This situation is at last changing, now that all the more accessible material has been quarried to the point of staleness and the figures still remaining to be disinterred lie buried at remoter historical levels, from which they can be extracted only with the deploying of more sophisticated methods. A sample of the new layer of riches that we can expect to be yielded up to us as a result is provided by these two volumes.

The Tradescants, father and son, have long been renowned as the founding fathers of the museum profession in Britain, but that they were also the founding fathers of British gardening has tended to be overlooked. Ten years ago a similar double biography by the late Mea Allan first brought them to general notice and redressed the balance by uncovering their importance in this other capacity. That book, however, veered uncomfortably between journalism and scholarship, and it is no great surprise to find that the research has had to be redone and that some of the deductions have turned out to be fanciful. The version Prudence Leith-Ross has now provided suggests bedrock reliability, though the price that has to be paid for this is solider reading (not helped by some eccentric paragraphing).

The rise and rise of Joseph Paxton should have accustomed us by now to the fact that the head gardeners to the great estates of yesteryear were not necessarily the counterpart of today’s municipal park keepers. The grand scale on which they were required to operate, ordering about small armies of subordinates in ambitious projects to lay down walks and flatten shrubberies, brought out in the best of them the talents that go to make generals. The inherent rootedness of the plantsman, too, with his pride in his slowly-developing creation, made for a peculiarly dependable loyalty and devotion. Not surprisingly, therefore, some came to be treated virtually as stewards and found themselves entrusted with duties that took them far beyond the bounds of the gentle little worlds in which they would otherwise have expected to spend their lives.

The elder Tradescant was just such a man. By 1610, when he first comes into certain view (apart from the record of his marriage), in the employ of Robert Cecil, laying out new grounds for the recently-acquired Hatfield House, his reputation was already such as to enable him to move even in court circles. Ten years later we find him investing in the Virginia Company and, a year after that, sailing with a trade mission to Russia under Sir Dudley Digges. In another two years he was off, more adventurously still, to the Barbary Coast, on the coat-tails of an expedition sent out against the corsairs. The motive for each of these involvements, at any rate in the first instance, was clearly the quest for new ornamental plants. Indeed, there is so much on botany in the diary he kept on his Russian trip (discovered in the Bodleian nearly two centuries later) that it ranks as the earliest scientific account of the flora of that country. To gain a place on these highly select forays Tradescant presumably had a flair as an organiser to offer. But there came a time when he had evidently bargained with this asset once too often and landed himself in an enterprise that can hardly have held serious botanical prospects. This was the ill-fated La Rochelle expedition, on which he doubled as baggage-master. He had entered the service of the Duke of Buckingham in connection with the planning of the garden of the latter’s new residence near Chelmsford and, as usual, had parlayed the patronage into a subsidised trip overseas. This time he was lucky to return home alive.

On Buckingham’s assassination in 1628 Tradescant, mysteriously, became independent financially and was able to establish a botanic garden of his own, along with a museum (his celebrated Ark), in South Lambeth Road, then still largely rural. Around the same time his career as a horticultural adviser came to a triumphant peak with his part-time appointment as Keeper of the royal gardens at Oatlands. His death, in 1638, occurred while his son was on a plant-collecting trip to Virginia (probably at the King’s behest). The younger Tradescant had been well and truly groomed for the succession and promptly took over the Oatlands position. Probably less to his taste, though, he also inherited the by that time immense collection of curiosa. Many of the donors to this are identified for the first time in this book and it is interesting to find that almost all were Royalists, a surprising number of these Catholic recusants. Such connections, quite apart from the royal employment, must have been a dangerous liability for a Londoner when the Civil War broke out, and the son tactfully absented himself through much of that unhappy period by going off again to Virginia plant-hunting. Of the several species he succeeded in bringing back alive – no small feat in view of the multiple hazards to which plants were exposed on voyages in those days – most had found their way into British gardens already at other collectors’ hands: but there are a few which we can regard as our legacy of that side-stepping excursion.

A main concern of the younger Tradescant thereafter was ensuring the continuation of the museum (of which the botanic garden seems to have been treated as an outdoor appendage). His only son having died, there was no case for keeping it within the family and he accordingly gave thought to bequeathing it to either Oxford or Cambridge University. At that point the beady-eyed Elias Ashmole appeared on the scene, cunningly ingratiated himself and managed to fool the less worldly Tradescant into appointing him (as Tradescant supposed) a trustee who would ensure that the collection was bequeathed according to Tradescant’s wishes. In reality, the document made over the collection to Ashmole himself. When the awful truth emerged on Tradescant’s death, his widow contended that her husband had signed the deed of gift while under the influence of alcohol and pressed for it to be set aside. Ashmole, however, had little difficulty in establishing his legal title, though he made no immediate attempt to exercise it. Ten years of waiting then followed. Eventually, unable to contain his patience any longer, Ashmole moved into the house next door and proceeded to harass the widow – to the point where she was driven to handing over the bulk of the collection into his keeping. Four years after that she was discovered drowned in her pond – but whether this was suicide or an accident will never be known.

From that time the collection ceased to be open to the public, Ashmole having jealously annexed it as a personal possession which only a few favoured acquaintances were ever allowed to see. But even Ashmolean gloating had its limits; and in 1683 he transferred the collection to Oxford – after all – to constitute the core of the new museum which he had founded there and which has continued to bear his name. Its Tradescantian origin was forgotten – and so, inevitably, were the labours of those two men who had created, in the author’s words, the 17th-century equivalents of the V & A and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.

A century later another celebrated London plantsman, James Lee of Hammersmith, was responsible for introducing the young Sydney Parkinson to Joseph Banks. The son of an Edinburgh brewer and a fellow Quaker of Lee’s, Parkinson had begun to demonstrate promise as a flower painter. Banks was on the look-out for such talents, to employ on the illustrating of his natural-history collections; and having tried him out on his zoological material, lately brought back from Newfoundland and Labrador, he decided he was a suitable recruit for the voyage to the South Seas on which he and Captain Cook would shortly be setting forth. Such a voyage was sure to turn up an abundance of plants and animals new to science, and artists were required for the purpose of making an on-the-spot record of the living appearance of specimens which the collecting methods then in use were quite incapable of preserving. With this pictorial back-up the scientific value of the collections would be immeasurably enhanced; it would serve as an insurance, too, in case specimens deteriorated to a point where they became unrecognisable or, as could equally well happen, were lost altogether through some disaster. More generally, artists were expected to fill the role today of expedition cameras, capturing the look of the scenery and the picturesqueness of the natives.

The epic Endeavour voyage, the first of Cook’s circumnavigations of the globe, lasted from August 1768 to July 1771. It was financed by George III, in response to an appeal from the Royal Society for an expedition to be dispatched to observe the Transit of Venus. The 25-year-old Banks went at his own expense, meeting also the cost of his eight assistants and servants and most of their equipment and books. The ship made the journey out to the Pacific by way of Madeira, Brazil and Tierra del Fuego, at each of which the team of naturalists made sample collections and Parkinson and the other official artist, Alexander Buchan, diligently sketched. Buchan had been hired for the non-natural-history work, but it soon turned out that his recruitment had been a mistake. Subject to epileptic fits, his health was not up to the stresses of the voyage and only four days after the ship had reached its destination, Tahiti, a series of illnesses culminated in his death. Luckily one of the team of scientists, Spöring, was a more than adequate draughtsman and so was able to take some of the double load that consequently descended on Parkinson’s shoulders.

The expedition lingered on Tahiti for an idyllic four months and then sailed south to New Zealand (discovered by Tasman over a century earlier). After another six months spent charting those coasts landfall was made in Australia, the Union Flag was raised in Botany Bay and Parkinson made sketches of a ‘kangooroo’. All this time he had been drawing fast and furiously, often sitting up all night, achieving an astonishing output despite the oppressive conditions under which he had to work – a far greater output, Banks was later to confess, than he had ever expected. Altogether, in the space of two years and four months, Parkinson is known to have made some 1,350 drawings, most of them of plants and many of a far above-average quality.

When the ship arrived at Batavia, a notoriously unhealthy spot for Europeans, the majority of the crew went down ill, Banks and Parkinson included, both of them very seriously. Banks fortunately lived; but for Parkinson it was the end, at the age of 26. On his return to England Banks made elaborate plans for the publication of the results of the historic voyage, scientific and otherwise. These naturally included Parkinson’s many drawings. But before the preparatory working-up of the material had been completed, Banks’s key assistant, Daniel Solander, died; and Banks himself became more and more deeply embroiled in distracting issues of scientific politics. The publication, in consequence, never in the end appeared and the fruits of Parkinson’s labours, just like those of the elder Tradescant, were hidden from posterity in the limbo of the British Museum.

Under Australian auspices – which is only fitting, for, as Sir Rutherford Robertson reminds us in his eloquent foreword, Parkinson was the first artist to set foot on Australian soil – a series of appraisals of different aspects of Parkinson’s work by 11 leading scholars has been brought between two covers, accompanied by a magnificent selection of his drawings and by authoritative notes recounting the often fascinatingly tangled nomenclatural history of the specimens illustrated. (There would have been a 12th contributor, had not that doyenne of Banksian scholarship, the late Averil Lysaght, been too ill to take part directly.) To complement the various biographical and scientific accounts the author of The Art of Botanical Illustration, Wilfrid Blunt, has been prevailed upon to pass judgment on Parkinson’s achievement as an artist. While stopping well short of acclaiming him as a genius (unlike, embarrassingly, one of his fellow contributors), Blunt goes so far as to call his best drawings ‘tremendously impressive’. The one defect in this otherwise superlative production is the irritating extent to which the essays have been allowed to repeat one another.