Nature's Wonders

Mary Somerset, Duchess of Beaufort, and the circle of London plant collectors in the later 17th century and beyond: Michael Ann Mullen reviews the Trust's latest study day on 11 December 2018 at Fulham Palace.

On a sunny morning last December, the London Parks & Gardens Trust welcomed members and others to the Drawing Room at Fulham Palace to hear scholars discuss the lives and practices of several 17th-century exotic plant collectors.

The Fulham Cork Oak
The Fulham Cork Oak

The idea for the Study Day dated from an LPGT event at which Mark Laird spoke about his recently published book, The Natural History of English Gardening (Yale, 2015). Laird, who has conducted considerable research into Mary Somerset, Duchess of Beaufort (1630-1715), suggested to the LPGT's Katy Myers that the Trust should celebrate the 300th anniversary of the Duchess' death. Although she was an important player in the collecting circles of her time, Beaufort is little known today.

The later years of the 17th and the early 18th century saw an intense interest in botany and plant collecting, in particular of tender exotics. The Duchess of Beaufort with gardens at Beaufort House in Chelsea, Bishop Henry Compton at Fulham Palace where the Head Gardener was George London, and Queen Mary II at Hampton Court, were pre-eminent among London collectors. They and the gardeners and botanists who advised them corresponded with one another, exchanged information and plant material, and made herbariums (collections of dried plants). Parts of these herbariums found their way into the vast collections of Sir Hans Sloane, which formed the basis for the foundation of the British Museum in 1759.

To commemorate Beaufort, Mark Laird proposed that a study day should take place at Fulham Palace, where Michael Lear had conducted research for the partial restoration of the planting. Lear was to speak about the development of Fulham Palace grounds at the time of Bishop Compton, but was unfortunately unwell on the day — attendees were, however, able to see some of the results of his work. Alexis Haslam, Community Archeologist at Fulham Palace, stepped in to outline the archaeology that has accompanied the project. Terry Gough, Head Gardener at Hampton Court, discussed his extensive research on Queen Mary II's exotic plant collection. Mark Spencer, a scholar of the herbarium, discussed the importance of herbariums to research into this period. Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, the Trust's president and Gardens Advisor to Historic Royal Palaces, acted as Chair.

In the afternoon, Head Gardener Lucy Hart led a tour of the grounds. The highlight was two beds containing species known to have been grown at the time of Bishop Compton, which had been planted only the day before. Research by Michael Lear and Mark Spencer had determined the species chosen.

The Trust is most grateful to Fulham Palace for its hospitality and for the professionalism with which it supported the study day.

The Sloane Herbarium: a collection of collections

Following the study day, a group of its attendees visited the Sloane Herbarium at the Natural History Museum in February. Architectural and garden historian DR SALLY JEFFERY reports on their visit.

During the study day at Fulham Palace, Head Gardener Lucy Hart had shown us newly-planted items originally collected and assembled by Henry Compton, Bishop of London (1632-1713). Many of his rare and exotic plants had been identified by means of material in Sloane's herbarium.

Sir Hans Sloane, Bt
Sir Hans Sloane, Bt by Stephen Slaughter, oil on canvas, 1736, NPG 569
© National Portrait Gallery, London
Creative Commons Licence

Apothecary and physician Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753) was one of the most important figures in the history of early plant collecting and identification. He not only made his own herbarium — an assembly of dried plants — but also by gift or purchase acquired those of a number of his acquaintances, notably: Mary Somerset, Duchess of Beaufort, an enthusiastic gardener and collector of unusual plants at Badminton and in London; George London, gardener at Fulham Palace and then Deputy Supervisor of the gardens of King William and Queen Mary, and a famous nurseryman; Leonard Plukenet, the botanist who looked after Queen Mary's exotics at Hampton Court; and James Petiver, apothecary to the Charterhouse, and a botanist. This collection of collections, still known as the Sloane Herbarium, is now part of the Natural History Museum's collection of dried plants.

Six members of staff and volunteers from Fulham Palace who were involved with the restoration project attended the Museum visit. Principal Curator for Algae, Fungi and Plants Dr Mark Carine gave an introduction to Sloane's long career as a traveller and collector, beginning with his visit to Jamaica in 1687 as a young man of 27, and continuing until his death in 1753. In Jamaica, Sloane toured the island acquiring examples of then unknown exotics, some of which were dried and taken back to England, where they were drawn and reproduced in wonderfully detailed engravings by Everard Kickius.

As well as describing Sloane's remarkable collection of Vegetable Substances, researcher Dr Vicky Pickering introduced us to the Duchess of Beaufort. While Sloane, as a physician, was more interested in the medicinal qualities of plants, the Duchess kept volumes of dried specimens which recorded details about the cultivation of the plants she grew, including the dried petals of her tulips and a note of what she had paid for the bulbs. Petiver, meanwhile, accompanied a dried flower labelled as Spanish curl'd Lavender with a note that he first saw 'this elegant plant' raised by Jacob Bobart Botanick Professor at Oxford', and listed various Latin names by which it was known.

This was the age of polynomial taxonomy, when plant names were long and complex and not always consistent. There is as yet no comprehensive catalogue of the collection, but Sloane created a kind of concordance, noting details of all the specimens of each plant next to the relevant entries in his volumes of John Ray's Historia Plantarum, so that they can be viewed and compared.

It is estimated that there are about 12,000 items in the Sloane Herbarium, collected from about 1660 to 1753, the year of Sloane's death. They originate from all continents of the world except Australasia and Antarctica, and some of them are examples of plants which are now extinct. This is a hugely important collection and is a priceless resource for historians and botanists.

A useful source of information on the herbarium volumes is James Edgar Dandy's The Sloane Herbarium of 1958, which lists the various volumes of specimens and gives biographical details of the principal contributors.