Linnaeus in the Netherlands: George Clifford

3 Clifford Hypericum androsaemum

Hypericum androsaemum from the Clifford Herbarium, courtesy of the Natural History Museum, London

As I mentioned in the first post in this series, Carl Linnaeus had just begun work with Johannes Burman at the Leiden Botanic Garden when George Clifford (1685-1760) asked Linnaeus to write a catalogue of the plants in his garden at Hartekamp, near Haarlem in the Netherlands.  It took some convincing for Burman to release him, but it ended up well for Linnaeus.  He spent over two years at Hartekamp, where he had available to him a large collection of tropical plants from around the world.  Linnaeus had already sketched out his Systema Naturae (1735) before he left Sweden, but his knowledge of plant diversity was limited to northern Europe.  Then he met Jan Frederik Gronovius, who had studied plants that John Clayton had sent him from Virginia and Burman, who had Paul Herman’s specimen collection from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).  His horizons were broadening (see last post).

Clifford was a wealthy Dutch financier and a director of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) that oversaw a worldwide shipping organization making the Netherlands a mercantile power.  From the VOC’s creation in 1602, its captains and ship surgeons were given directions on how to make collections and transport specimens, seeds, bulbs, and cuttings back home.  The more exotics that reached home, the more the Dutch became avid gardeners hungry for still more plant novelties.  Because of his position, Clifford had first dibs on the plants that arrived in Holland, and he had the interest and knowledge to appreciate them.  To give a sense of the scope of his collection, he had four greenhouses, one each for plants from Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas.  At this time, gardening and sophisticated plant collecting were status symbols for the elite; Clifford’s Hartekamp was obviously a premier example.  Even his herbarium specimens reflected his status.  The sheets had elaborately printed labels, and the cut end of each plant was covered with a printed urn (Thijsee, 2018).  This became a fad at the time among the rich and botanically sophisticated (see figure below).

Among the living plants in Clifford’s unique collection was a banana tree, which was growing well but had never blossomed or produced fruit.  Linnaeus gave it special attention and took credit for inducing it into flower in four months with a regimen of restricting watering, and then watering generously.  This was one of the first times this feat had been achieved in Europe and was so noteworthy that Linnaeus wrote a short book on the plant, and Clifford had it published (Rutgers, 2008).  This added luster to both their names; it also indicated Linnaeus’s skills with living plants as well as with identifying specimens.

Another important event during this time was the arrival of the German artist Georg Ehret at Hartekamp in 1736.  Ehret had already produced a large portfolio of botanical watercolors for several patrons, none of whom paid very well.  He had come to the Netherlands after doing some work in England and called on Clifford in the hope of finding further employment.  Clifford was indeed interested in Ehret’s work and even paid his asking price for a number of paintings.  Ehret remained at Hartekamp for a month, working on illustrations for Clifford’s catalogue.  Linnaeus explained to Ehret his plant classification system based on the reproductive structures in flowers.  He had worked out 24 classes simply by counting the number and arrangement of the stamens or pollen-producing male organs, with the 24th class reserved for those without visible stamens.  Within each class were subclasses depending up on the number of female organs.  The beauty of the system was its relative simplicity, grounded in traits that were usually visible and countable.

Ehret illustrated the system with a chart that has become famous, a simple visual representation of the 24 classes (see figure below).  He published it shortly after leaving Hartekamp and Linnaeus also published it much later, but not crediting Ehret.  Working in close proximity together, even for a month, must have been important to them both during this early formative period in their careers.  Ehret, who had already developed the practice of dissecting flowers and illustrating their parts, often with magnification, learned from Linnaeus the pivotal importance of these structures in identifying species.  On the other hand, Linnaeus was able to see the artistic and intellectual work that went into creating first-rate botanical art.  In their book Objectivity, Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison (2007) write of four-eyed sight, which results from an artist and a scientist working and looking together, resulting in an image that satisfies both.  Linnaeus and Ehret could very well have collaborated in this way.  After he left Hartekamp, Ehret had a long career in England producing illustrations for many major botanical works including those of Philip Miller and Christoph Jacob Trew, who had been an early patron of Ehret’s in Germany.

3 Ehret
Georg Ehret’s diagram of Carl Linnaeus’s classification system, courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library

Most of the illustrations in the Clifford catalogue were done by Ehret and the remainder by Jan Wanderlaar, who also engraved the plates.  It took Linnaeus nine months to write the text (Blunt, 1971).  The species descriptions were organized according the classification system Linnaeus had laid it out in his Genera Plantarum, which was also published during this time (1737).  While he was in Hartekamp, he published early versions of other works as well.  Clifford also afforded him the time and the resources to become better educated in botany.  Besides his herbarium and garden, Clifford also had a substantial library, with all the leading botanical references of the day.  Hartekamp must have been a difficult place to leave.  However, after spending almost three years in the Netherlands, Linnaeus’s thoughts were of Sweden.  Yet he didn’t go directly home.  His further wanderings will be examined in the next post.

References

Blunt, W. (1971). The Compleat Naturalist: A Life of Linnaeus. New York, NY: Viking.

Daston, L., & Galison, P. (2007). Objectivity. New York: Zone.

Rutgers, J. (2008). Linnaeus in the Netherlands. TijdSchrift Voor Skandinavistiek, 29, 103–116.

Thijsse, G. (2018). A contribution to the history of the herbaria of George Clifford III (1685–1760). Archives of Natural History, 45(1), 134–148.

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