Friday, March 8, 2013
John Tradescant the Elder and his son John collect plants
John Tradescant (c 1570-1632) & his son, also named John (1608-1662), became gardeners to the nobility & royalty of England. Both traveled widely collecting botanical specimens & other rarities.
John Tradescant, the elder (d. 1638), was probably born in England, perhaps in the 1570s. He seems to have had family connections in East Anglia. English researchers record possible candidates for his parents at Corton, while his son John Tradescant (1608-1662) left legacies to "namesakes" (described by his wife as "kinsmen") at Walberswick. Both of these villages are on the Suffolk coast.
The earliest record of Tradescant's life is his marriage in 1607, at Meopham in Kent, to Elizabeth Day, daughter of the late vicar of the parish. As Tradescant began collecting plants, John Parkinson & John Gerard became his close friends.
Tradescant's 1609 employer was Robert Cecil, 1st earl of Salisbury, at Hatfield House. In 1611, at Salisbury's behest, Tradescant traveled through the Low Countries & Flanders to Paris, buying trees, flowering shrubs, vines, & bulbs for the gardens at Hatfield. Following the death Robert Cecil in 1612, Tradescant remained in the employment of the 2nd earl, on whose behalf he again visited France. Tradescant left Hatfield in 1614, to farm for himself & to work with Edward, 1st Baron Wotton, at the former monastery of St Augustine at Canterbury.
At Canterbury, his success in growing melons, mandrakes, & other exotics attracted admiring comments from Sir Henry Mainwaring & others. Tradescant accompanied a delegation to Tsar Michael Feodorovich, led by Sir Dudley Digges. Tradescant's diary of this "Viag of Ambusad" survives among the Ashmole manuscripts in the Bodleian Library. While the ambassadorial party set off for the imperial court, he spent 3 weeks doing fieldwork noting the characteristics of plants & other wildlife—the first such investigations recorded on Russian soil—& gathering specimens for shipment back to England. Parkinson (Paradisi, 346; Theatrum, 705) identifies white hellebores, purple cranesbill, & other plants among those brought to England on that occasion by "that worthy, curious & diligent searcher & preserver of all natures rarities & varieties, my very good friend, John Tradescante."
Tradescant accompanied the English fleet sent in 1620–21, to quell the Barbary pirates who were proving an increasing hazard to English shipping. He collected specimens as he could on land, when circumstances permitted. Parkinson reported that Tradescant had collected on this trip the wild pomegranate "was never seene in England, before John Tradescante … brought it from parts beyond the Seas, & planted it in his Lords Garden at Canterbury."
In 1623, Tradescant entered the service of George Villiers, 1st duke of Buckingham, for whom he again visited the Low Countries & Flanders, buying trees & other plants. A 1625 letter written by Tradescant in Buckingham's name & addressed to Edward Nicholas, then secretary to the navy, asks sea captains, ambassadors, & overseas merchants to furnish the duke with all manner of natural & artificial curiosities. In 1625, when the duke was sent to France to provide an escort for Charles I's bride, Henrietta Maria, on her introductory journey to England, Tradescant followed in his wake with "my Lords stuff & Trunkes &c" taking the opportunity to acquire further specimens for the duke's gardens at New Hall in Essex. In 1627, he accompanied the duke again to France, when Buckingham attempted to bring relief to the besieged protestants of La Rochelle, where Buckingham's army was decimated on the Île de Ré.
Following Buckingham's assassination in 1628, the elder Tradescant moved to South Lambeth in Surrey, where he would live for the rest of his life. Propagating unknown plants & procuring rarities grew to dominate his life.
In Lambeth, Tradescant would plant the specimines he was collecting, establish a public museum, & raise his family, including his plant collecting son, John the younger.
The younger Tradescant was fascinated by the idea of Virginia & collecting in the New World. Tradescant the elder gave money so that in 1609, Captain Samuel Angall could find the best route to Virginia.
It is speculated that John Tradescant the younger went along on the trip & sent plants back. One plant sent back was Spiderwort (Tradescantia virginiana). By 1616, he was a shareholder in the Virginia Company & paid for the transport of 24 settlers to the Virginia Colony. This would have entitled him to buy 1,200 acres in Virginia.
John Tradescant names 40 North American plants in his garden-list of 1634. Tradescant is credited with being the first to grow the Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), Aquilegia canadensis, Aster tradescantii, Rudbeckia laciniata, Tradescantia virginica, &, possibly Robinia pseudo-acacia. Lemmon (1968:5) says that the Tradescants brought back the first lilac, gladioli, lupins, the pomegranate, the hypericum & many crocuses.
Among them was the plant with which his name is most closely linked, Tradescantia virginiana, of which Parkinson wrote, "This Spider-Wort is of late knowledge, & for it the Christian world is indebted unto that painfull industrious searcher, & lover of all natures varieties, John Tradescant … who first received it of a friend, that brought it out of Virginia." (Parkinson, Paradisi, 152)
By 1634, Tradescant's own plant collection was large enough for a visitor Peter Mundy to report spending "a whole day in peruseing, & that superficially, such as hee had gathered together" (R. C. Temple, ed. The Travels of Peter Mundy in Europe & Asia, 1608–1667, Hakluyt Society, ser. 2, vols. 45–6, 1919, 1–3). A description of the collection from 1638, includes the earliest mention of its most famous surviving treasure, "the robe of the King of Virginia, better known as "Powhatan's Mantle."
In 1630, he was chosen by the king as "Keeper of our gardens, Vines & Silke-wormes" at Oatlands Palace near Weybridge in Surrey, where he reportedly helped lay out a new bowling green & build a shelter for 200 orange trees. It was later destroyed by Cromwell. The Tradescants continued to amass collections of ornamental flowers & trees, most notably fruit trees, publishing a catalogue in 1634. A year before the elder Tradescant died, he was appointed custodian of the Oxford Physic Garden in 1637.
John Tradescant the younger (1608-1662) sailed to Virginia between 1628-1637, to collect plants. He settled around the area of Yorktown & Belfield, Virginia. Tradescant brought back more than 90 new plants. Among specimens the younger John brought back to their gardens at South Lambeth were American trees, like the Magnolia, Bald Cypress, & Tulip tree, plus garden flowering plants such phlox & asters. In addition to the more than 700 species of plants growing in the garden & orchard, the house itself (known as Tradescant's Ark) was a cabinet of curiosities, where father & son displayed novel items they had collected during their travels. To the original botanical collections, the Tradescants added sea shells; fossils; crystals; birds; fishes; snakes; insects; gems & coins; poisoned arrows; Henry VIII’s hawking bag & spurs; & the hand of a mermaid.
In 1656, John the younger published a catalogue called "Musaeum Tradescantianum" which recorded in detail the contents of the house & garden. In this 1656 catalogue, John Tradescant listed 30 or 40 more American species. They included the red maple, the tulip tree, the swamp cypress & the occidental plane; the vines Vitis labrusca & V. vulpina; Adiantum pedatum, Anaphallis margaritacea, Lonicera sempervirens, Smilacina racemosa & Yucca filamentosa.
The younger Tradescant bequeathed his library & museum (or some say it was swindled from him-another story) to Elias Ashmole (1617–1692). These collections were to become the core of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, where the Tradescant collections remain largely intact. The collection includes these 1611-1630 fruit sketches probably made by the elder Tradescant.
Tradescant Road, off South Lambeth Road in Vauxhall, marks the former boundary of the Tradescant estate which included the botanic gardens & museum. Tradescant the elder was buried in the churchyard of St-Mary-at-Lambeth, as was his son. Part of the church is now established as the Museum of Garden History.