This series of posts is on gardens and the herbaria that document what has been grown in them. Most gardeners do not preserve specimens of their favorite plants, though some might press a flower or beautiful leaf between the pages of a gardening guide. In the past however, some gardeners were so tied into botanical networks that pressing plants was an important part of their practice. I am thinking specifically of two British noblewomen who gardened on a grand scale. The first is Mary Somerset, Duchess of Beaufort (1630-1715), who traded plant information with such botanical notables as Hans Sloane, William Sherard, and James Petiver. Even John Ray consulted her herbarium in writing some of his plant descriptions.
Somerset had the wealth to pay collectors for exotic plants from around the world and also to create conditions in which these plants could flourish. She and her gardeners gave delicate plants a great deal of attention. She was among the first to have a stove or heated greenhouse with large windows and heating under a stone floor provided by an open fire in a mobile cart on tracks so it could be moved around under the floor. Botanists like Petiver enjoyed visiting her because of the plants he found flourishing, some of which he only knew from pressed specimens. Somerset was assisted by William Sherard, a botanist who later worked at Oxford and whom she hired as her grandson’s tutor. He schooled her in botany, used his connections to add many exotics to her garden, and developed her herbarium as she worked side by side with him (Davies, 2016).
The Duchess kept track of both the rare and familiar plants she grew, and in her herbarium there are pages of anemone flowers, for example, from varieties that have long since disappeared and for which the collection provides a permanent physical record of their existence. There are few such horticultural herbaria, particularly from this period. It is not surprising that the 12-volume Somerset herbarium is now part of Sloane’s at the Natural History Museum, London (NHM). Later in life when she moved from her estate in Beaufort to a house and garden in Chelsea, she was Sloane’s neighbor. Anxious to get plant names right, she corresponded with Sloane and others, admitting that neither she nor her gardener knew Latin, yet Sloane thought so highly of her cultivation skills and facilities that he had her grow medicinal plants for the Royal College of Physicians (McClain, 2001).
Somerset documented her successes not only in her herbarium but by having her plants drawn by artists including Everhard Kick, who had painted the Jamaican plants in Sloane’s collection. Kick spent from 1703 to 1705 at Somerset’s estate depicting species she was growing. One was a Polygala or milkwort species from the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa that was not introduced into British horticulture until 1707, suggesting that Somerset had received a plant directly from the collector, a sign of her status in the botanical network (Cottesloe & Hunt, 1986).
Somerset used Kick’s paintings and those of others as templates for embroidery designs. She was a skilled needleworker, as were many upper-class women of her time, and flowers were a favorite subject. In an article on Mary Queen of Scots and Bess of Hardwick, Nicole LaBouff (2018) argues that women used embroidery as a way to display and also increase their botanical knowledge. Among the references for these women’s work was Andrea Mattioli’s herbal from Mary’s library. They considered sewing another form of study, a way to learn about plant form and structure, an adjunct to working in the garden or creating a herbarium. Each enriched their understanding of plants. Since women were limited in their educational opportunities, they used such outlets to grow intellectually through what were considered feminine arts.
Years later, the constraints remained but the number of women horticulturists had grown. The Duchess of Portland Margaret Bentinck (1715-1785) was another wealthy woman who used plants as a way to develop her intellect, her aesthetic sense, and her gardens. Like Somerset, she had a leading botanical artist, Georg Ehret, document her plants in watercolors and teach her daughters painting. Bentinck was also a patron to the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who later in life studied botany, seeing it as calming the emotions by focusing the mind on something outside itself. Botany became an important manifestation of his interest in nature, especially in common species rather than exotics and horticultural “monstrosities.” When Rousseau visited England, he stayed at Bentinck’s estate and botanized with her. He gave her two portable herbaria since he considered a plant collection a way to reinforce botanical knowledge (Laird, 2015).
Mary Delany, known for her exquisite floral embroideries and even more for her floral paper cutouts, was a good friend of Bentinck and spent months at a time visiting her. They studied Linnaean botany with the Rev. John Lightfoot, who organized Bentinck’s specimens, collected for her, and served as her chaplain (Laird & Weisberg-Roberts, 2009). Through her work with Lightfoot, Delany was familiar with specimen preparation and so with arranging a plant on paper, flattening it out, and making sure all its essential features were displayed. With her cutouts she was doing something similar and often depicted both sides of a plant’s leaves, common practice in mounting a specimen. Delany’s collages can be likened to herbarium specimens in having more depth and texture than an illustration; there are even a few cases where Delany added real leaves to a work (see above). Botany, specimen preparation, and art sharpened her observations and drove her to look closely and to become more connected with flower form.
Cottesloe, G., & Hunt, D. (1983). The Duchess of Beaufort’s Flowers. Exeter, UK: Webb and Bower.
Davies, J. (2016). Botanizing at Badminton: The botanical pursuits of Mary Somerset, First Duchess of Beaufort. In D. Optiz, S. Bergwik, & B. Van Tiggelen (Eds.), Domesticity in the Making of Modern Science (pp. 19–40). London: Palgrave Macmillan.
LaBouff, N. (2018). Embroidery and Information Management: The Needlework of Mary Queen of Scots and Bess of Hardwick Reconsidered. 81(3), 315–358. https://doi.org/10.1353/HLQ.2018.0014
Laird, M. (2015). A Natural History of English Gardening 1650-1800. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Laird, M., & Weisberg-Roberts, A. (2009). Mrs. Delany and Her Circle. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
McClain, M. (2001). Beaufort: The Duke and his Duchess. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.