Wednesday, 24 July 2013

On the Inside

High summer, astonishing heat – days of record temperatures which make being indoors a welcome relief even for sun-lovers like me.  There’s also a sense in which part of the life of a botanic garden goes on behind closed doors – or perhaps one propped half-open in the hope of a cool breeze – planning, running, development and outreach, learning – and of course the science which underpins the whole enterprise.  I find myself thinking of the garden’s creators, trying to imagine what they saw as they designed and planted, how far a vision of the beautiful space which today’s visitors enjoy encroached on the need to establish a centre for study and research, and a living plant record.

Nelson Street, Derby
Record-keeping holds little interest for most of us.  As a student, I worked a couple of summers in the ‘Shopping Bureau’ of the London Midland region’s offices next to Derby Station.  Less fun than it sounds: for ‘shopping’ read ‘send to the workshop for repairs’, though of course I was only responsible for paperwork, not the engines themselves; fortunately, since I made a name for myself by ‘losing’ a loco, a great joke as the boss’s daughter.  Both my dad and the ‘British Railways’ he loved are long gone, and the Nelson Street offices demolished, I think.  Now I recall only the cream cakes on birthdays, long hours tickled by hay fever, and the fusty smell of piles and piles of foolscap manila folders – though sometimes I wondered if it was the smell of all those men...

So I’m surprised by how fascinating non-live plant records can be.  I spent yesterday morning in the university’s herbarium, chatting to Christine Bartram and looking through folders of plant pressings.  Until recently I had never heard the word ‘herbarium’ so that my first encounter, in the Botanics’ own smaller version in Cory Lodge, reduced me to incoherent amazement: ‘Wow!’ I said, and ‘Wow!’ as door after door in the tall metal cabinets opened to reveal an extraordinary record: not living, of course, but ‘real’ specimens as opposed to a paper description.  There are
Lindley sheet with type specimen
comparisons: trays of minerals, for example – still being added to? – and butterflies, moths –perhaps not.  You couldn’t do this with railway engines, though – imagine the size of the folder!  And a museum of transport is only obliquely comparable: here you get the ‘original’ specimen, carefully pressed and mounted, either by the collector or perhaps sent back to England in a glass case by the plant hunter and pressed and labelled by the botanical expert here, with a note on when and where the specimen was found, and by whom.  And on the same sheet (I think originally samples were mounted on linen), later observers will have their say: perhaps a challenge to the initial identification, or some clarification of provenance.  It’s like opening a magic door to the past; not a dialogue, exactly – the first ‘speaker’ doesn’t have a chance to reply – but a kind of layering of voices.  As I hold in my hands a sheet which John Lindley has labelled, touch the stem of a plant gathered on the other side of the world over 150 years ago, I feel a bustle of stories clamouring to be told.

Bloody cranesbill: I.H.F.
Another term for herbarium is, I learn, hortus siccus, literally ‘dry garden’.  The phrase is also good for the book I hold in my hand.  It has a faded (or discoloured?) marbled cover.  On the frontispiece, carefully written in black italic pen, ‘HORTUS SICCUS’ and in smaller capitals ‘I.H.F’; underneath, ‘Edinburgh.  May 22nd.  1834’.   At first I think this is the only clue to the author.  Later, I discover in faded sloping writing on the inside cover, ‘I.H. Freeman’.  A quick internet search provides no clue.  For no good reason, I feel this is the work of a woman – and then I’m not so sure.   There are upwards of 150 pressings, organised mainly two or four to a page.  The samples are glued rather than taped.  Each is headed with Latin and common names and family: here 'Geranium sanguineum Bloody Cranesbill Monadelphia Decandria (Geraniacea)'.     Beneath all but the last few, there is a number, with a source and date (this is No. 16 ‘Salisbury Craigs May 26th’).  For the last twenty or so, annotations are sketchier, and one or two final specimens at the end are unlabelled.  Did this collector run out of time, or energy? At the end, I.F. has included an alphabetical index, although the system falters with later additions – No. 149, for example, Parnassia palustris, squeezes in out of order at the end of the Ps.  I hold the book up to my face and breathe in a sharp peppery scent, ancient, exotic, dusty.  And the pages carry their own ghosts, pale imprints of the sample on the opposite page, like a dream of a flower long forgotten.

'Miss Sarah Anne Drake
Our morning in fact was peopled with women.  Marion Seward, daughter of a Hartlepool shipbuilder and wife of (!) Sir Albert Charles Seward, Professor of Botany for 30 years and master of Downing College, was in her own right an accomplished botanical artist, illustrating her husband’s books and papers as well as bringing up four daughters and engaging in various projects for refugees and war widows.   Much loved in Cambridge, she apparently died in 1924 of ‘overwork’.  Miss Sarah Anne (‘Ducky’) Drake is again known in relation to a man.  Family friend and nanny to the three children of John Lindley, Professor of Botany at University College London and ‘father of orchidology’, she lived in the family home and was his principal botanical illustrator, averaging 75 paintings a year.  She died supposedly of diabetes, then incurable, though one source suggests the toxic effects of a 15-year intensive painting career may have contributed.  Georgiana Molloy was a plant hunter and, whilst she is named on some of Lindley’s specimens, from Swan River in Australia, for example, often her contributions are attributed to Captain James Mangles, an impossibility as Mangles never left the UK.  In one of those weirdly unsettling but satisfying moments of serendipity, I discover that Georgiana was born to the Kennedy family of Crosby Lodge near Carlisle, a stone’s throw from our family home (albeit much more modest) in the Cumbrian-Scottish borders.  

I suppose the painting, or much of it, was done indoors, but none of these women fit the bill of little women working quietly away behind the scenes, while their men were out and about
Marion Seward: Centaurea Cyanus (detail)
getting on with the important stuff.  Marion Seward managed to fit at least one trip to Australia into her busy schedule and her beautiful paintings, presumably used as illustrative material for Professor Seward's classes, are startlingly vibrant.  Even 'Ducky' Drake flew the Lindley nest eventually to enjoy, I hope, five years of married bliss back in her native Norfolk.  The admirable Georgiana Molloy battled a family fall-out over religion and then endured the struggles of being a new settler in a strange land.  Apparently her diaries reveal her unhappiness.  By the end of her life she had taught herself botany, had gained a quiet reputation amongst a few for the high standard of her plant specimens, and had a school named after  her, in addition to bearing seven children.   Of all the ghosts I  have met so far in my new home, Georgiana is the one I most want to get to know, from the inside out.

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