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Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Tradescant Museum: A Proto-Smithsonian in London?

In one rare book in the Cullman Library in the National Museum of Natural History is a door to the lost world of two remarkable gardeners and the first museum in Great Britain open to the public.

The Biodiversity Heritage Library has digitized the Smithsonian Libraries copy of the Musaeum Tradescantianum (link here)
Musaeum Tradescantianum, or, A collection of rarities preserved at South-Lambeth neer London, published in 1656, is a catalog of curiosities and trees, shrubs and plants assembled by father and son, both named John Tradescant, from far-flung trips. This printing of the contents of the house and gardens, dubbed the Ark, was paid for by Elias Ashmole, who, in turn, under murky circumstances, acquired it all, forming the nucleus of Oxford University’s famous Ashmolean Museum.

John Tradescant’s house at south Lambeth. Line engraving, 1798 (photograph from Wellcome Images)
In the gardens and orchards of the Thames River estate, in the borough of Lambeth, the Tradescants grew over 700 botanical specimens. John the elder (approximately 1570-1638) and John the younger (1608-1662) were gardeners to a succession of nobility and royalty and, owing to these wealthy patronages, plant explorers. Tradescant senior journeyed to the Low Countries and France beginning in 1609 for Robert Cecil’s gardens at Hatfield House (limes, mulberries, cherries, tulips were acquired). He accompanied Sir Dudley Digges to Russia (1618), introducing the larch tree to England, and also explored North Africa (from 1620), returning with Syringa persica (Lilac). Tradescant oversaw the grounds of Oatlands in Surrey for King Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria; his son succeeded him there as Keeper of His Majesty’s Gardens, Vines, and Silkworms.
A posthumous oil portrait of John Tradescant the Elder, attributed to Cornelis de Neve. The trompe-l’oeil cartouche contains grapes, pear, peaches, plums, parsnips, turnips, onions, tulips, and shells in a fitting tribute. (Photograph from the Ashmolean, Museum of Art and Archaeology,University of Oxford)
Many North American plants were introduced into England by the Virginia Company of London, a stock (for-profit) company formed to establish a colony in the New World. Tradescant senior became a subscriber to the enterprise in 1617 and was growing about forty specimens from this venture by 1634. His son made the voyage himself, collecting in Virginia during separate trips in 1637, 1642 and 1654. Some of the fruits of these expeditions — “to gather all rarities of flowers, plants, and shells” — including the American cowslip (Dodecatheon meadia), Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) and the tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera), were planted in the Lambeth gardens and recorded in the catalog Musaeum Tradescantianum, with many becoming standards of the English cottage garden of today.

Portrait of John Tradescant the Younger, attributed to Thomas de Critz. A wonderful romantic and melancholy presentation of the gardener, with his spade. (Photograph from the Ashmolean, Museum of Art and Archaeology,University of Oxford)

North American botanical specimens were not the only curiosities attracting the Tradescants. Objects came into the collection, not only from the father and son’s journeys, but also from fellow travelers, sea captains, military officers, and diplomats. There were wonders in the Ark: a piece of Christ’s cross, a hand of a mermaid, a unicorn’s horn that Tradescant knew was from a narwhal but believed to be “yet very precious against poison.” Listed in the Musaeum Tradescantianum were “Divers Humming Birds, three sorts whereof are from Virginia.” And, “Pohatan, King of Virginias habit [cloak] all embroidered with shells, or Roanoke.” The 1901 Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution proudly, if not entirely accurately, boasts “The collections of Sloane, who was one of the early scientific explorers of America, were like those of the Tradescants, contained many New World specimens, and the British Museum as well as the Ashmolean was built around a nucleus of American material.”

The Ark’s various collections of weapons, garments, coins, “fourfooted beasts,” birds, insects, fishes, fossils, minerals, instruments, works of art, all numerated in the Musaeum Tradescantianum, are of course the type that are housed, cataloged, studied and displayed in the Smithsonian. Along with the curious public (there are many contemporary accounts), visitors of more serious interests soon started referencing and studying the holdings. Schoolmaster Charles Hoole believed that every child should pay an annual visit. Thomas Johnson, in his edition of Gerard’s Herbal, noted that “Indian Morrice Bells” could be seen at South Lambeth. The dodo, penguin, “Brazilian Merula or blackbird,” and “Indian Mockbird” were studied by the ornithologist Francis Willughby and naturalist John Ray.

The 1656 catalog was a unique publication in England for the time. Materials were divided into two categories, “Naturall” and “Artificialls”. The Musaeum Tradescantianum is particularly important as a detailed record of the gardens, long since destroyed. The main residence of the Tradescants, Turret House, survived until 1881. Oxford’s Bodleian Library contains some of the gardeners’s manuscripts and books, including the wonderful manuscript “Tradescant’s Orchard”, watercolors of fruit, and the only known copy of the 1634 Plantarum in horto Johannem Tradescanti nascentium catalogus

“Dodar, from the Island of Mauritius; it is not able to flie being so big:” the description from Musaeum Tradescantianum (page 4). The Tradescant or Oxford Dodo. Skeleton cast and model of dodo at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History
The Tradescants’ collection of the Ark in the Ashmolean is now mostly dispersed. Even the Tradescant Dodo was thrown into a trash bonfire in 1755 although the head and a leg were rescued and displayed in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Today the Garden Museum (near the original estate), with funding from the Ashmolean Museum, is working toward a partial recreation of the Ark. The Musaeum Tradescantianum provides the guidebook to the Tradescants’s Cabinet of Wonders, a 17th-century precursor to the collections of the Smithsonian.  


The portrait engravings in the Musaeum Tradescantianum were by the famous Wenceslaus Hollar, a family friend.

The Garden Club of Virginia honored both the Tradescants and their state with a stain glass window of the family's coat of arms within a wreath of Tradescantia virginiania, presented to Oxford University in 1926. The generic name Tradescantia dates from 1718 and was recognized by Linnaeus. The stain glass resides in the Museum of the History of Science (Old Ashmolean Building). Photograph by Andrew Gray (Wikimedia Commons).  
Tradescantia pallida 'Purple Heart'. Collected by Robert Bruce Faden for the Botany Department of the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution. Photograph by Leslie Brothers
Allan, Mea. The Tradescants: their plants, gardens and museum, 1570-1662. London: Michael Joseph, 1964.

Leith-Ross, Prudence. The John Tradescants: gardeners to the Rose and Lily Queen. London: Peter Owen, 1984.

Julia Blakely, Special Collections Cataloger
Smithsonian Libraries

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