English museums’ early roots included Chesapeake flora
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One of the highlights of my 2005 trip to England was a dinner party hosted by horticulturalist Colin Crosbie and his wife, Pamela, at their home located at Wisley, the Royal Horticultural Society’s garden in Surrey, outside London.
Crosbie, at 24, was appointed a royal head gardener in the 1980s, and was the youngest person in English history to be so honored at that time.
Crosbie talked about his early career, when he served the former Queen Elizabeth, widow of King George VI, and the beloved “Queen Mum” of Elizabeth II. He said the Queen Mother was a really nice person; regal in public, but knowledgeable of her gardens and truly genuine in private, often inviting “Mr. Crosbie” as she called him, to join her for an afternoon drink after their walk around the garden. “What would you like?” she would ask. “Whatever you’re having, Ma’am,” he’d reply, and she’d invariably choose Scotch. Much later, while employed at Wisley, he was presented to the Queen Mother at a reception. She cut the introduction short, warmly shaking his hand, saying “Oh, I know Colin well!” and thereafter called him by his first name until she died in 2002 at the age of 101.
After dinner, Crosbie, who is Wisley’s tree, shrub and alpine plant expert, took us through the estate’s greenhouses, groves and flower beds, which contain many North American species. I took particular note of a lovely purple flower with three petals—the trinity flower. Colin offered its Latin name, Tradescantia virginiana. With the species name virginiana, there was no question where it came from.
It was also poignant that I should notice this plant because I was in England specifically to do research on two 17th century gardeners: John Tradescant (tra-des’-cant) the Elder and his son John Tradescant the Younger. The Tradescantia I admired had been named for Tradescant the Elder in 1629, when it was brought to England.
The first record we have of the elder Tradescant, born about 1570, is his marriage on June 18, 1607. Tradescant was appointed gardener to Cecil, First Earl of Salisbury in 1608, the same year that John the Younger was born.
Meanwhile, thousands of miles away in Jamestown, the colonists were struggling just to stay alive, let alone making their venture for the London Virginia Company a financial success that would attract favorable attention from King James—who as it turned out, made clear his disdain for tobacco, ultimately the venture’s most financially successful crop. In a 1608 effort to make Powhatan a titled subject to the English king, Jamestown’s Christopher Newport pushed a symbolic crown onto the unwilling chief’s head. In grudging return, Powhatan gave Newport his cloak, which would later be associated with the Tradescants.
King James died in 1625, and King Charles I, ascended to the throne. By this time, Tradescant had built a reputation for good and honest service among several high-placed master, and in 1630, Charles appointed Tradescant “Keeper of His Majesty’s Gardens, Vines and Silkworms” at £100 a year.
Tradescant’s workplace, Oatlands, was the home of Charles’ consort, Henrietta Maria, who like her mother, Maria de Medici, loved plants and eventually became known as the “Rose & Lily Queen.”
England’s expanding influence in the world, meanwhile, created an interest in wild species and natural resources in foreign lands, which suited Tradescant’s interests and skills.
In pursuit of botanical specimens for his patrons, Tradescant traveled quite widely—Russia, North Africa—bringing back a number of extraordinary natural and cultural artifacts. It’s said that he was the first to introduce the lilac and the apricot, as well as many other species, to England.
Tradescant hungered for specimens from the New World and possibly to encourage the opportunity of obtaining these, invested £25—a quarter of his annual income—in the speculative Virginia Company of London. He later invested in the Virginia plantation of Samuel Argall, a prominent ship captain and at one time, an official at Jamestown. Tradescant was an investor with him: “February 12, 1617, Captain Argall and his associates, here under named, allowed severall Bills of Adventure for transport of 24 persons, at their charge to Va. Viz ... John Tradescant 1 Bill of £25.” The investment help to pay the passage for indentured servants who would work for a specified number of years, then be given land and supplies after their service contract had been fulfilled.
Specimens and other curiosities came into Tradescant’s possession, most likely in partial return for his investment. He received specimens and assistance from several benefactors, including two other Virginia Company investors: Sir James Bagg, a stockholder, and Sir John Trevor, a director.
Tradescant eventually assembled the natural and cultural objects into what was known as a “cabinet of curiosities,” exhibit for others to admire, which he opened to the public soon after settling in Lambeth in 1629.
This exhibit became known as “Tradescant’s Ark” and a contemporary teacher wrote, “of all places in England [it is] the best for the improvement of children in their education because of the variety of objects which…may easily be seen at Mr. Tradescant’s.”
A visitor, Peter Mundy, who was in London 1634 on leave from the East India Company wrote that at Tradescant the Elder’s home at South Lambeth “a man might in one daye behold and collected into one place more curiosities than he should see if he spent all his life in Travell.”
Izaak Walton, author of “Compleat Angler,” wrote, “we islanders are averse to the belief of wonders; but there be so many creatures to be seen now, many collected by John Tradescant.”
There were other cabinets in Europe, but Tradescant’s collection was open to the public and was almost like a museum. It would, indeed, become England’s first museum.
An engraving of such a cabinet or collection, belonging to Ole Worm of Copenhagen and published in 1655, shows many species which could have come from the Americas: a sturgeon, an alligator, a sea turtle and its disarticulated skull, a goosefish and a bonnet-head shark. A skin-covered kayak is suspended from the ceiling.
The items, on open shelves, were apparently all uncased. An attendant might accompany the visitor who’d paid his sixpence, and objects were certainly handled. Supposedly, the cabinet even contained a “piece of wood from the cross of Christ.”
Whatever curiosities people came to see, plants were of paramount interest to the English; aristocrat and apothecary alike. While the rich wanted exotic trees and flowers to adorn their estates, everyone needed the possible cures that might—and sometimes did—come from unknown plants with medicinal properties. Sassafras, for example, was shipped from the Chesapeake shortly after Jamestown was established. It was reputed, incorrectly, to yield an elixir that would cure syphilis.
In the meantime, John Tradescant the Younger attended the King’s School in Canterbury and was classically educated. He followed in his father’s footsteps and was apprenticed as a gardener for several years. He may have even assisted his father at Oatlands, receiving a very different yet highly skilled education than one obtained from books.
Tradescant the Younger was a rising star at age 25, and was admitted a freeman to the Worshipful Company of Gardeners in 1634. He began working for the rich, like his father. He married Jane (Hurte), who gave birth to a daughter, Frances. Jane died shortly after the birth of their son, John III. The funeral expense, a stiff £100, likely reflects the affection John had for her.
In 1637, the younger Tradescant—a widower with a son and daughter—undertook the first of three voyages to Virginia “to gather up all raritye of flowers, plants, shells.” The King’s request to search for useful trees and herbs, no doubt played a role in Tradescant’s decision to take this trip during what must have been a very difficult time.
Virginia also offered the opportunity to furnish the Ark with new and wonderful things. In 1638, a robe or hanging made from four deerskins appeared among items at the Ark. It was later described as “the robe of the King of Virginia” by Georg Christoph Stirn, a German visitor. It is widely believed to be the robe that Powhatan gave to Christopher Newport 20 years earlier.
A scrap of text pasted into a volume of herbarium sheets, now preserved at the British Museum, notes: “Tradescants Virginia Cypres...It is said to grow in its native soil 60 or 80 feet high and some 36 feet in Circumferance...Mr John Tradescant was the first who brought seed of this from Virginia, and in Chelsea-Garden (it) still remains one of the biggest (if not the oldest) Tree in England.” The plants he introduced to the Royal Gardens and on other estates prospered in England’s temperate climate. These plants were later carried throughout Europe.
Shipping seeds carefully tied in paper or little pasteboard boxes was one thing, but successfully transporting live plants was a real challenge. Imagine the rigors of a sea voyage: drenching salt spray, the violent motion of a rough ocean and often, the inability to expose the plants to sunlight for weeks at a time. These conditions were hard enough and often lethal for people.
Water was one of the most precious commodities on long voyages, and a thirsty seaman would have little sympathy for some wilting flower or sapling. The ship carrying Tradescant the Elder on his Russian voyage ran aground and stove in some of the freshwater casks, which made drinking water short. A “plant…which made a very fine show…of a finer bright red than a hawe” was lost because they feared watering it with seawater “and the boys in the ship, befor I peserved it, eat of the berries,” he wrote.
Later plant collectors modified barrels with a wooden shelf atop a half-fill of soil, with holes for the plants. Open “windows” were cut through the upper barrel sides and the tops were removable to give full sun, or alternatively, shade in fair weather. Capt. William Bligh, in the 18th century, modified a segment of the entire tween-decks to house valuable plants, and had two full-time botanists to attend them. The infamous “Mutiny on the Bounty” frustrated his carefully wrought objectives. Others, though, were more successful in moving plants.
The Elder Tradescant managed his two grandchildren while his son embarked on his first expedition to Virginia. But was already thinking ahead toward his own death and John’s welfare. He urged the widower to marry a woman trusted and known to him, Hester Pooks, whose 1645 portrait by Thomas de Critz portrait survives to this day. Tradescant seems to have chosen well. Hester was a hardworking woman who bonded with John and his children and who managed his affairs well while he traveled.
In 1638, when his father died, it fell to John the Younger, Hester and their daughter, Frances, to manage the complexities of the Ark, by then a popular attraction. Tradescant also was fortunate, at age 30, to be appointed to the position in royal service previously held by his father at the same £100 a year.
The species brought to England by the Tradescants were never fully enumerated, but a plant list from 1634, “Plantarum in Horto Iohannes Tradescanti mascentium Catalogus” lists 55 varieties of plum alone!
Modern botanists Anne Yentsch and Jim Reveal confirm these plants in the gardens at Tradescant’s Ark, as originating from the Chesapeake: bald cypress, Atlantic white cedar, red mulberry, black locust, hackberry, tulip poplar, bladdernut, red maple, bergamot, fox grape and wild grape.
John the Younger also brought back and cultivated: trumpet honeysuckle, thimbleberry, pokeweed, silkgrass, virgin’s bower, Virginia rose, Virginia creeper, poison ivy, medicinal snakeroot, Jerusalem artichoke, Carolina jasmine, a “spiderwort” (known today as the insectivorous pitcher plant), noble liverwort and maidenhair fern, which he collected along the James River.
The Tradescants espoused the use of several Chesapeake herbs: false Solomon’s seal, columbine, bloodroot, wild lupine, cardinal flower, balmony, goldenrod, coneflower (Echinacea), evening primrose and Tradescant’s aster.
No thought about the problems from introduced nonnative species seemed to cross anyone’s mind at the time and the flow of organisms went east and west, both accidentally and intentionally.
The problems created by nonnative species are of course legion, and Europeans subsequently found some of the introduced North American plant species growing wild and out of control. Virginia creeper and smooth cordgrass are just two examples.
Charles I and Henrietta Maria may have been good patrons for the Tradescants, but they did not govern well. Charles refreshed his treasury with new taxes, alienated the Scots and was in conflict with Parliament which frustrated his every action. Hostility grew against his foreign queen.
It’s not clear what Tradescant’s motivation for returning to Virginia was in such unstable times. Was he fleeing feared violence to come or inspired by the success of his first trip? His objective, of course, was yet more specimen plants and curiosities. Whatever the case, in early 1642 Tradescant left his wife to manage the Ark, a project she faithfully carried out.
On August 22, 1642, England’s Civil War began. The war aside—especially the looming hazard of the family’s being swept into the conflict—there was no guarantee that any man traveling to Virginia would live to return. Life expectancy in the colony was a scant 26 years.
But Tradescant did return safely from Virginia, where he had acquired the rights to 100 acres.
As three years of bitter fighting swept across England, Tradescant still performed some maintenance work at Oatlands. He billed Parliament £40; they paid him £20. Continuing care of the gardens may have been a contingency plan to continue a relationship with Parliament, should the king’s cause fail.
Charles I was indeed defeated in January 1647, and eventually beheaded.
Much of the Tradescant’s once comfortable world began to turn upside down.
The future of the Tradescants and the Ark continues in December.
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