The 18th-Century Passion for Botany: Women

2a Passiflora laurifolia

Paper cutout of Passiflora laurifolia by Mary Delany, in the collection of the British Museum

The last post was on the enthusiasm for gardening that flourished in the 18th century.  One aspect of this trend was the increasing interest in horticulture among women, especially those with the wealth to satisfy it.  A prominent example was Margaret Bentinck, Duchess of Portland (1715-1785).  She was curious about all aspects of natural history and was an prodigious collector not only of animals, plants, and minerals, but also of paintings and the decorative arts.  After her husband’s death in 1762, she devoted more time to bringing exotic plants to the gardens of her estate at Bulstrode Park and learning as much as she could about natural history.  She had impressive collections in conchology, entomology, and ornithology, but I’ll concentrate on the plants.  Bentinck knew Peter Collinson (see last post) and received North American plants from him.  He also suggested that she hire Daniel Solander, Carl Linnaeus’s former student who had recently arrived from Sweden, to arrange her collections according to the Linnaean system.  She may have had massive numbers of organisms, but unlike many other collectors, they were well-organized (Laird, 2015).

Bentinck also hired another émigré, the botanical artist Georg Ehret, not only to paint plants she grew, but also to teach art to her daughters.  Another member of her household was the Reverend John Lightfoot, who served as chaplain and naturalist, giving special attention to her shells and plants.  She financed his collecting in various parts of Britain and took botany lessons from him.  The duchess was obviously more than just a plant lover; she had a sophisticated appreciation of botany, and not surprisingly, kept a herbarium.  In fact, none other than the French philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, gave her two portable herbaria.  As I’ll discuss in the last post in this series, he became passionate about botany toward the end of his life, had a herbarium, and created others for patrons such as the Duchess, whom he visited while in England in 1767.

Bentinck was not the only woman with broad intellectual pursuits.  She was loosely connected with the original group of bluestockings, who met to discuss their mutual intellectual interests.  She was particularly close to another member, Mary Delany, also a gardening enthusiast whose knowledge of botany deepened with time.  Delany came from a less wealthy line of nobility, but this still gave her access to royal circles.  She had a dreadful first marriage, and eventually found love and contentment with an Irish clergyman and friend of Jonathan Swift’s.  She developed their garden near Dublin and led a satisfying life until the Rev. Delany’s death in 1768.  Like many women of her time, she took an interest in drawing, and combined with her gardening passion, it’s not surprising that she drew flowers.  Among her accomplishments was the design of floral embroidery patterns including those used on a gown she wore when presented at court.  Though she did needlework, the gown was made by professional embroiderers and precisely displayed about 200 identifiable species (see image below).  It was so magnificent that portions were preserved and passed down through her family for generations (Hayden, 1994).

2b Delany mantua

Segment of the embroidered court gown designed by Mary Delany

After her husband’s death, Delany spent months at a time visiting Bulstrode Park, working with the Duchess on her plant collections and studying with Rev. Lightfoot.  They would press plants, draw them, and dissect them using a microscope, another not uncommon aspect of botanical interest at the time.  Naturally, they also walked through the gardens regularly, but in 1772, Delany had a sore foot that kept her sidelined.  She occupied her time by coloring pieces of paper and then cutting them out to form pictures of flowers.  These were very much in the tradition of botanical illustrations: a single branch against a plain background, though instead of the usual white, she used black.  They could be likened to herbarium specimens, having more depth and texture than an illustration does.  There are even a couple of cases where she added real leaves to a work.  Delany, and presumably the Duchess, were pleased with her compositions, and so she continued.  Over time the pieces became more elaborate.  At first, she would paint in details, but later she cut out tiny pieces of paper to form minute structures.  One particularly amazing example was used on the cover of a catalogue for an exhibition on Mrs. Delany and Her Circle (Laird & Weisberg-Roberts, 2009).  It presents the passionflower, Passiflora, in all its glory (see figure at top).

During the next 10 years Delaney completed over 900 cutouts, with the Linnaean name for each species written on the back.  When King George III and his wife Queen Charlotte, another devoted gardener, visited Bulstrode, they marveled at Delany’s work and within months she was given access to plants at Kew Gardens.  There the King’s confidante, Joseph Banks, was converting the garden to the study of exotic species.  Delany also received plants from a number of other sources, including the Quaker gardener John Fothergill, a patron of the American nurseryman John Bartram, and William Pitcairn, who sponsored plant collecting in the East and West Indies (Laird, 2015).  Her work is a notable example of how women combined botanical knowledge with the arts.  The next post will focus on the artwork resulting from the passion for plants in the 18th century.

References

Hayden, R. (1993). Mrs. Delany: Her Life and Her Flowers. New York: New Amsterdam.

Henderson, P. (2015). James Sowerby: The Enlightenment’s Natural Historian. Kew, UK: Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

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.

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