Art and Botany: John Bradby Blake

Painting of a Gardenia created in China under the direction of John Bradby Blake, in the collection of the Oak Spring Foundation Library

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.

War and Herbaria

Hakea ruscifolia collected by Jacques Labillardière in Australia; herbarium of the National Museum of Natural History, Paris

While COVID-19 is the major news topic now, the subject of war seems to come up frequently, at least in terms of comparisons of the present situation with the 1918 flu and its relationship to World War I, or comparing the present death toll to that of the Vietnam War and other conflicts.  So this seems like a good time to look at a question I’ve been collecting information on for some time:  what are the links between herbaria and war?  In Plants and Human Conflict, Eran Pichersky (2019) argues that “plants are the foundation of our existence and the ultimate cause of our wars” (p. 12).  That seems a rather bold statement, but he goes on to investigate conflicts for the control not only of land on which to grow crops, but also of needed water resources.  He notes that three of the four necessities of modern mechanized warfare—grain, steel, oil, and rubber—are plant-derived. 

But where do herbaria come into this picture?  Think of all the specimens collected on expeditions of conquest such as the Dutch taking over the Molucca Islands (now the Maluku Islands) from the Portuguese so they could corner the market on nutmeg and cloves (Nabhan, 2014); 19th-century US government expeditions into Native American lands and attendant conflicts to pave the way for agriculture in the West (McKelvey, 1955); British conquest of India and turning the country into a source for tea, timber, textiles, and other commodities (MacGregor, 2018).  The British botanist William Jackson Hooker even wrote a guide to plant collecting for a manual on science published by the Admiralty (Nesbitt and Carine, 2016).

And then there are herbaria as spoils of war.  An important collection, one that was pivotal to Carl Linnaeus’s work, is the 23-volume herbarium of Danish botanist Joachim Burser (1583-1639).  Containing some Danish, but mostly Central European species, it is arranged according to Caspar Bauhin’s taxonomy and is the oldest collection at the Museum of Evolution Herbarium in Uppsala.  It ended up in a Swedish herbarium and thus accessible to Linnaeus because, after Burser’s death, it was seized as spoils of war when King Charles X of Sweden vanquished Denmark (Stearn, 1957).  In another case, the Swiss botanist Albrecht von Haller’s 60-volume herbarium was bought by the Austrian Emperor and given to the library at Pavia in Italy.  When Napoleon invaded the area, he took the collection back to Paris, where it remains at the herbarium of the National Museum of Natural History (MacGregor, 2007).  Later, when Napoleon led an army into Egypt, he brought a group of natural history collectors with him.  Though his military foray ultimately failed, the same Parisian natural history museum reaped rich collections, including the specimens of Alire Raffeneau Delile who studied plants on the mission and then described them back in Paris (Thinard, 2016). 

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries there were multiple conflicts between the French and British, both major naval powers anxious to gain control of North America and to explore the world as a whole in search of new sources of wealth.  When they were at war, travel and communication between the two countries were often cut off, a problem for scientists who were more interested in the latest research than in politics.  Hans Sloane and his former teacher in Paris, Joseph Pitton de Tournefort did not see any reason to sever connections during hostilities, though it was sometimes difficult to get letters through; they relied on diplomats from neutral nations to pass on messages.  Gavin de Beer’s (1952) article on how such relationships were maintained between France and Britain focuses on the fellows of the Royal Society who would exchange journals with their French friends when regular mail was halted. 

A famous case of magnanimity and fairness in herbarium history involves the botanist Jacques Labillardière who joined a 1791 French naval mission to learn the fate of an earlier expedition that had failed to return from the Pacific, that of Jean-François La Pérouse.  They never did discover what happened to La Pérouse; the evidence of his ship’s wreckage wasn’t found until 1826 on one of the Solomon Islands.  But while stopping in Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania and the East Indies, Labillardière assembled a large collection of over 10,000 specimens, as well as 70 tubs of live plants, and about 600 kinds of seeds.

When the expedition arrived at a Dutch-held port in Java in 1793, the French learned that their king had been executed and that the Netherlands and France were at war.  The officers and naturalists were arrested, but eventually were treated differently depending upon whether they had royalist or republican sympathies (Williams, 2003).  The supporters of the king, including Labillardière, were held, while the republicans were allowed to sail home.   The Dutch seized Labillardière’s collection and sent it on with the French who had been released; their ship was later boarded by the British and the collection confiscated.  

Labillardiére did not return to France until 1796.  By that time, impounded crates of his specimens had arrived in England where the French court was living in exile, welcomed by a sympathetic monarchy.  The collection was handed over to them because Louis XVI had been king at the time the expedition sailed.  The exiles offered to allow Britain’s Queen Charlotte, an amateur botanist with her own herbarium, to select specimens.  However, Labillardière petitioned Joseph Banks, as a fellow botanist and confidante of the British king, to return the specimens in the name of science.  Banks considered science above politics and was attempting to maintain contact with French scientists despite the repeated political duels between the two countries.  Banks returned the collection without even opening it.  This was definitely an act of self-control for a keen collector with his own impressive herbarium (Mulvaney, 2007).  However, as one who had traveled around the world with Captain James Cook and collected thousands of plant specimens, Banks appreciate the toil involved in gathering the plants, preparing specimens, and keeping track of them. 


de Beer, G. R. (1952). The relations between Fellows of the Royal Society and French men of science when France and Britain were at war. Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, 9(2), 144–199.

MacGregor, A. (2007). Curiosity and Enlightenment: Collectors and Collections from the Sixteenth to the Nineteenth Century. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

MacGregor, A. (2018). Company Curiosities: Nature, Culture and the East India Company, 1600-1874. London, UK: Reaktion.

McKelvey, S. D. (1955). Botanical Explorations of the Trans-Mississippi West 1790-1850. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.

Mulvaney, J. (2007). Labillardière′s Luck. In “The Axe Had Never Sounded” (Vol. 14, pp. 81–86). ANU Press; JSTOR.

Nabhan, G. P. (2014). Cumin, Camels, and Caravans: A Spice Odyssey. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Nesbitt, M., & Cornish, C. (2016). Seeds of industry and empire: Economic botany collections between nature and culture. Journal of Museum, 29, 53–70.

Pichersky, E. (2019). Plants and Human Conflict. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.

Stearn, W. T. (1957). Introduction. In Species Plantarum Facsimile (Vol. 1, pp. 1–199). Ray Society.

Thinard, F. (2016). Explorers’ Botanical Notebook. Buffalo, NY: Firefly.

Williams, R. L. (2003). French Botany in the Enlightenment: The Ill-Fated Voyages of La Perouse and his Rescuers. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer.

The Linnaean Apostles: Daniel Solander

3 Solandra tridentata LINN 332a.2

Solandra tridentata (LINN 332.2) from the herbarium of the Linnean Society, London

In the last post I discussed one of Carl Linnaeus’s students, Peter Forsskål, who never returned from his expedition to the Near East.  Daniel Solander (1733-1782) traveled farther and also lived to study the fruits of his exploration.  He was born in Lapland and, not surprisingly, studied in Uppsala where he was considered Linnaeus’s favorite pupil.  When British botanists asked Linnaeus to send someone to England to boost the use of Linnaean taxonomy, Solander was chosen.  He left in 1760 and never again lived in Sweden.  At first, he spent time reorganizing the herbaria of wealthy patrons such as the Duchess of Portland and Peter Collinson, who was one of those who had encouraged Linnaeus to send an “apostle” to England.  He was influential in British botanical circles as a member of the Royal Society, a trustee of the newly formed British Museum, and a patron of the American nurseryman John Bartram.  Solander sent specimens from Collinson and others on to Linnaeus.  When the British Museum was looking for someone to care for the herbarium of Hans Sloane, the donor of the museum’s founding collection, Collinson asked Lord Bute, then Prime Minister, to suggest Solander to the King as the ideal choice (Rose, 2018).  This is a fascinating, though tiny, piece of history because all of the individuals involved were interested enough in plants that the care of a plant collection would be discussed at the highest government levels.

Solander began working at the museum in 1763 and set about giving the plants in the herbarium Linnaean names without disrupting the physical order of its 265 bound volumes.  This was a compromise that would allow those not familiar with the new system to still find plants in the collection using Sloane’s system, which was essentially an annotated copy of John Ray’s Historia Plantarum in which Sloane or his botanical curator had written the volume and folio numbers for each species, noting new species when necessary.  Solander began with the first volumes of the herbarium, those containing the collections Sloane had made while he served as physician to the Duke of Albemarle on the island of Jamaica in 1687-1688.  Among the 800 species were hundreds of new ones that Sloane described in his two volume Natural History of Jamaica (1702-1727).  Solander wrote the names on labels that he added to Sloane’s sheets, but retained the older labels, an approach that not been taken by many earlier botanists though later became the norm.

While at the museum, Solander began to receive visits from a young botanical enthusiast, Joseph Banks, heir to a large fortune who had attended but not graduated from the University of Oxford.  He supplied Solander with an unmarked copy of the Sloane Jamaica volumes to annotate.  This was a good way to keep track of the Jamaican species.  When Solander moved on to the rest of the collection, he used slips of paper to record the new names and crossreferenced them with the volume and folio numbers.  He also annotated a copy of Linnaeus’s Species Plantarum.  In this way, the collection was “modernized” without being rearranged.  This went on until 1768, when Solander took on a very different kind of challenge.

Banks had convinced the British Admiralty to make him part of the round-the-world expedition to be led by James Cook on the Endeavor.  It’s major aim, and the publicized one, was to observe the transit of Venus across the sun, which would take place on June 3, 1769.  However, Cook was also instructed to visit Australia, acquiring as much navigational and geographic information for future use in possible colonization (O’Brian, 1993).  Banks, at his own expense, put together a team to study natural history.  It included Solander, Herman Spöring of Finland as secretary, two artists, and two servants.  Banks paid to outfit the ship for his group as well as for scientific instruments and other supplies for preserving specimens and even for growing plants.  There is obviously a lot to this story, but for now I will stick to Solander and plants.

Apparently Banks and Solander made a good team.  They developed a system for dealing with the huge amount of material they collected, in all, about 30,000 plant specimens.  They would return to base each day, give the artist Sydney Parkinson the fresh material to sketch and make color notes, while they, with Spöring’s help, wrote up their notes.  The plants were pressed, though at times, as when they reached Australia, their system couldn’t keep up with collecting.  Plants weren’t drying fast enough, so the pair laid them out on deck on sails during the day.  Needless to say, this massive collection proved daunting to tackle for publication.  Banks and Solander worked on it for years, with engravings made of about 800 species from the Parkinson drawings.  The artist hadn’t survived the voyage, but he did produce 900 complete watercolors and as well as hundreds of sketches.  Unfortunately, Solander died in 1782 before the project was completed, and Banks seems to have given up first-hand work on botany after his death.  Instead, Banks became more involved in projects to promote botanical exploration as well as agriculture.  The Banks’ Florilegium wasn’t published until the 1980s in 34 massive volumes.  Solander did not publish much but he was obviously essential to the Endeavour mission, and perhaps even more importantly, to making the Sloane Herbarium a continuingly useful botanical resource.


O’Brian, P. (1993). Joseph Banks: A Life. Boston, MA: Godine.

Rose, E. D. (2018). Specimens, slips and systems: Daniel Solander and the classification of nature at the world’s first public museum, 1753–1768. The British Journal for the History of Science, 5 (2), 1–33.