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

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.