In the last post, I discussed how a set of herbarium specimens was created specifically for use in the production of illustrations. Now, I want to explore a set of illustrations, or really several sets, that were used in a way that herbarium specimens are sometimes employed, as guides in finding more plants. When the botanist John Banister was preparing to travel to colonial Virginia as a missionary and as a plant collector for his superior, Bishop Henry Compton, he compiled a collection of specimens of North American plants from the Oxford University herbarium as a memory aide and a guide for his plant hunting (Ewan and Ewan, 1970). Pressed plants served him well because he had enough experience with dried plants to be able to relate them to living examples of the same species when he encountered them, or could recall what they looked like if he had seen them growing in the Oxford Botanic Garden. But for an amateur, it would be difficult to make such connections.
This is why the story of what are called John Bradby Blake’s drawings is so intriguing. He was a supercargo for the British East India Company (EIC). I was unfamiliar with the term “supercargo” and all it called to mind was a super tanker. However, it refers to EIC officers who served as cargo managers on ships, supervising loading and unloading, as well as all the details of getting the materials through customs and to their final destination. Unlike EIC surgeons who saw to the wellbeing of the crew and employees in foreign ports, supercargos were unlikely to have much grounding in botany. Knowing about plants and their medicinal properties was an important part of medical education until the early 20 century. Many surgeons welcomed the opportunity to collect in foreign lands as an interesting way to fill idle hours, and perhaps earn money for their collections. While supercargos might be interested in the financial rewards, they usually didn’t have the botanical expertise to hunt for interesting species.
John Bradby Blake was an exception. While he had no formal botanical training, his father, who had been a ship’s captain, was interested in gardening and taught his son. It is likely that they both visited nurseries since they lived in Westminster, the area of London with a thriving nursery trade. Captain Blake worked with John Ellis, a British naturalist interested in importing seeds and plants from China and introducing new species of horticultural interest to Britain. While in China, Bradby Blake arranged for Chinese artists to paint watercolors of Chinese plants in a style similar to European botanical illustrations. He had brought a number of these with them and then sent a package of the new paintings back to England, probably to his father, in 1773. Bradby Blake did not survive the year, but his watercolors have had a long and fascinating life and even had many offspring. Jordan Goodman and Charles Jarvis (2017) have written an interesting article on how these were “put to work” in collecting plants in China.
With the drawings, Bradby Blake sent a letter asking for advice on the illustrations and how they could be improved. He wanted them to accurately depict all the characteristics necessary to identify a species. The botanist and plant entrepreneur Joseph Banks examined the collection and eventually Banks owned them along with other Chinese paintings of plants. Two of his associates examined them. Daniel Solander, one of Carl Linnaeus’s students, curated Banks’s herbarium and wrote out a list of 50 drawings Bradby Blake had sent giving probable identifications and noting when needed characteristics were absent or vaguely drawn. William Aiton used the same illustrations as something of a sales catalogue, helping him to pick out plants he would like to grow at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew where he was director under Banks’s supervision.
This selection process became more formal in 1789 when John Lind, a naval surgeon who knew Chinese, created a chart listing the Chinese and Linnaean names for the Bradby Blake drawings and noted which species were growing at Kew. With this information, it was possible to then send instructions to China about which plants had not yet been collected. Along with Lind’s information, Banks sent Alexander Duncan, a surgeon serving in Canton, a book of Chinese plant illustrations that were copies of Bradby Blake’s collection and were annotated with the Chinese names. Duncan was delighted because he could visit Chinese nurseries and show them the plants he wanted. In 1803, Banks arranged for a permanent plant collector in China, William Kerr. This further organized the acquisition of desirable plants by Kew. Kerr created a garden where he could harvest seeds and also grow plants for transport back to Britain, and he had at his disposal the same illustrations as Duncan did.
The EIC commissioned Kerr to have a set of plant illustrations made by Chinese artists for display at India House, its London headquarters. The first set of 400 numbered drawings was completed in two years. From then on, Kerr cross-referenced plants he sent with the drawings so William Aiton at Kew would be able to know what he was receiving. In 1817, John Reeves, a EIC tea inspector, received permission to copy Kerr’s India House collection. They were produced in Canton and sent to members of the council of the Royal Horticultural Society. In many cases, these drawings are similar to Bradby Blake’s and others that were in Banks’s collection. This is a fascinating story intertwining cross-cultural botanical art, plant collecting, and artistic reproduction.
Ewan, J., & Ewan, N. (1970). John Banister and His Natural History of Virginia 1678-1692. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.
Goodman, J., & Jarvis, C. (2017). The John Bradby Blake Drawings in the Natural History Museum, London: Joseph Banks Puts Them to Work. Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, 34(4), 251–275. https://doi.org/10.1111/curt.12203