Leading Britain’s botanical revolution
Mark Griffiths traces the remarkable gifts and legacy of James Sowerby (1757–1822), whose publishing ventures informed the nation on crucial aspects of the natural world
Mark Griffiths traces the legacy of James Sowerby, who kept the nation informed on crucial aspects of the natural world
AT the same time as her Industrial Revolution, Britain underwent a botanical revolution. By the late 18th century, exploration, trade and colonialism were introducing us to plants in unimaginable variety. Keenly aware of their beauty, scientific interest and economic potential, George III and Queen Charlotte encouraged Sir Joseph Banks, the nation’s foremost plant prospector and promoter, to amass these newfound riches at their estate on the capital’s south-western outskirts. Thus began what, in the following century, would become the greatest repository of the globe’s flora, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
The Crown was far from alone. The profusion of plant introductions was soon enriching many of our gardens and making botanists of the most curious and ambitious gardeners. To find out about their latest acquisitions, or to discover what might take their fancy next, plant lovers looked to a novel kind of journal that presented prized rarities and recently arrived species as news stories at the same time as scientifically naming, describing and illustrating them.
Among these periodicals, the glorious frontrunner was The Botanical Magazine; or Flower-garden Displayed, launched in 1787 by the botanist William Curtis and still being published to this day under the title Curtis’s Botanical Magazine.
The inaugural issue appeared on February 1. An octavo pamphlet priced at one shilling, it comprised hand-coloured plates, each of a plant, and accompanying descriptions. The plan was that collectors would bind it and subsequent issues into volumes and so they did, eagerly.
Plate one of issue one, the first of thousands, portrayed Iris persica in lines of exquisite accuracy and tones from ice blue to flame. It was the work of James Sowerby. In the annals of natural history, artists tend to be seen as subordinate to authors, but there is no chance of that with Sowerby: he became the leader of Britain’s botanical revolution.
He was born in London on March 21, 1757, at 2, Bolt-in-tun Passage just off Fleet Street, the son of John Sowerby, a lapidary. His artistic gifts became evident in early boyhood, indeed, irrepressible at his day school, where, during class, he would make models and sketch. They became invaluable after his father’s death in 1766, when James, although only nine, began to sell drawings to help support his mother and siblings.
At 14, he was apprenticed to Richard Wright, the painter of seascapes and naval scenes. Six years later, in 1777, he enrolled at the Royal Academy Schools.
Sowerby funded himself by giving drawing classes and painting portraits. However, the latter involved rather too much flattering distortion for his taste. He found himself more and more engaged by the landscapes, trees and flowers among which he depicted his sitters. Before long, he resolved to take humans out of the picture and to turn their plant props and settings into his main subjects. The results impressed William Curtis, who was on a recruiting drive for artists, not long having stepped down as praefectus horti (director) of the Chelsea Physic Garden to devote himself to publishing ventures.
The first of these was Flora Londinensis, which was produced from 1777 to 1798 in collectable instalments that built into six magnificent folio volumes. This work was revolutionary in two respects. In focusing on plants that grew wild in and around London, it presaged urban, or suburban, ecology. In presenting them as attractive coloured engravings along with authoritative but accessible text and in a readily obtainable serial format, it sought to make converts, to gain a far wider audience for botany than specialists alone. Schooled by Curtis in plant science and illustration, Sowerby pro- duced about 50 of the work’s most beautiful plates. However, the master, alas, had misread his market: exotic plants had the public’s attention, not species familiar from local waysides, woods and fields. Moreover, the instalments were too infrequent and the plates too variable in quality, printing and colouring.
Although Curtis valiantly persisted with the project, it soon became clear that Flora Londinensis was a flop. It was with his next venture, The Botanical Magazine, that he found an audience and commercial success.
In the years before he produced the magazine’s first illustration, Sowerby had three fateful encounters. During his time at the Royal Academy Schools, he’d become firm friends with a fellow student, the future Coade stone and ceramic sculptor Robert Brettingham de Carle. Once, having heard Robert describe his sister Anne, Sowerby was moved to produce an imaginary portrait of her. A little later, when he visited the de Carle family’s home in Norwich, he found that the reality far surpassed his ideal. He and Anne were married on February 9, 1786. While visiting the de Carles, he also met the son of one of the city’s wealthiest wool merchants—a brilliant young devotee of botany, James Edward Smith.
Acting on a lead from Banks, in 1784, the 24-year-old Smith had bought the specimens, manuscripts, correspondence and books of the great Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus, who died in 1778. Throughout Europe, Linnaeus was becoming regarded as the father of modern systematic biology. In interpreting his works, his collections would prove indispensable. By acquiring them, Smith made England the world centre of the new science.
In 1788, he founded the Linnean Society, the national academy for the advancement of natural history. The following year, Sowerby,
‘Botany was a force for progress, a nation builder
Left: Blue chaser dragonfly. Facing page, clockwise from top left: European bee-eater; Iris persica; and Digitalis purpurea