Mr Fairchild’s Mule

In a previous life/blogspot, I mentioned in passing the horticulturalist Thomas Fairchild (1667–1729), who left £25 for the endowment of an annual Whitsuntide sermon on either the ‘Wonderful Works of God in the Creation, or on the Certainty of the Resurrection of the Dead proved by the Certain Changes of the Animal and Vegetable parts of the Creation’: it became known as ‘the Vegetable Sermon’.

I came across Fairchild and the sermon because it was for several years preached at St Leonard’s, Shoreditch, by Rev. Dr Thomas Morrell, who was  a friend of Hogarth at Chiswick, then went as chaplain to the Garrison at Portsmouth, as well as writing the libretti for  Handel’s Oratorios; ‘in which he has very great merit’. (These were Judas Maccabaeus, Alexander Balus, Theodora, Jephtha, and the English version of Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno. Handel left Morrell £200.) And Morrell was one of the various now almost forgotten worthies mentioned in the nine-volume Literary Anecdotes of the Eighteenth Century, Comprizing Biographical Memoirs of William Boywer, Printer, F.S.A., and Many of His Learned Friends, published between 1812 and 1815 by the author and publisher John Nichols (1745–1826).

But Fairchild himself is an extraordinarily interesting character. He features at the beginning of Andrea Wulf’s The Brother Gardeners, where, in novelistic (if not positively melodramatic) style, she describes the Hoxton nurseryman, who in 1716 ‘closed the door of his potting shed and set in motion a chain of events so momentous that in time no gardener would ever think about plants in the same way again. At the same time, it led Fairchild, a devout Christian, to live in fear of God’s wrath for the rest of his life.’

Thomas Fairchild:. Credit: Dept of Plant Sciences, University of Oxford

Thomas Fairchild. Credit: Dept of Plant Sciences, University of Oxford

The annual sermon (possibly a form of atonement?) attended by the Worshipful Company of Gardeners (66th in order of precedence among the Livery Companies of the City of London) migrated in 1873 to St Giles Cripplegate, but I owe to the esteemed Gentle Author the news that St Leonard’s Shoreditch hosted a ‘Fairchild lecture’ by the botanist and scientist Dr Rupert Sheldrake on 27 May at 7 p.m. (I had been planning to go, but a strained back not unconnected with heaving plant pots around the garden at the weekend has limited my gallivanting.)

One of the frustrations of an interest in the past (regardless of area/era) has to be a loss of an innocent eye: in the sense that it is impossible (for me, at any rate!) to expunge knowledge of subsequent events, which inevitably informs my reaction and understanding. One of the most fascinating aspects of the excellent National Gallery exhibition on what the Impressionists owed to Paul Durand-Ruel was the vitriol expressed in the words of the contemporary critics quoted on the walls. The flesh tones on a Renoir nude were described as ‘corpse-like’; the painters were mocked for hopeless incompetence, if not lunacy, and Durand-Ruel twice went bankrupt through his inability to sell on the paintings he eagerly acquired from the likes of Monet, Degas and Pissaro.

It is difficult to think oneself back into a time and state of mind where these beautiful, insightful, moving, and vastly popular images were incomprehensible and condemned by the artistic establishment, and ignored by the art-buying public. It is often explained that the critics were used to and accepted only work with the high finish of the likes of Ingres, Delacroix or Winterhalter. But why did Ruskin, who worshipped Turner, for whose greatest works the term ‘impressionist’ could have been invented, inveigh in such unfortunate terms against Whistler?

Queen Victoria, 1859, by Winterhalter

Queen Victoria, 1859, by Winterhalter

Jeanne reading, by Camille Pissaro

Jeanne reading, 1899, by Camille Pissaro

Similarly with Fairchild and his ‘mule’: hybridisation has been a completely normal part of agricultural and horticultural practice for so long that it’s difficult to think back to a time at which it would be thought blasphemous to attempt to create a new species, because God had already done all that. (Though Albertus Magnus seems to have suggested in the thirteenth century that plant life was mutable rather than static, and that grafting might produce completely new species: it doesn’t, but what is significant is that he didn’t seem to have a problem with the idea.)

So Fairchild may well have had his apprehensions, but in fact he quickly became celebrated in scientific circles for his experiment, and presented a dried flower from his cross – between the carnation pink and the sweet william (both in the Dianthus family) – to the Royal Society in 1720.

A specimen of Fairchild's mule in the Oxford University Herbaria

A specimen of Fairchild’s mule in the Oxford University Herbaria. This is morphologically different from a specimen in the Natural History Museum: Fairchild must therefore have repeated his experiment more than once.

Having been originally apprenticed to a clothmaker, Fairchild established a plant nursery in Hoxton (in the parish of St Leonard’s, Shoreditch) in about 1690. He had a famous vineyard, and his premises seem to have been visited as much to see the gardens as to purchase plants. He corresponded with the great Linnaeus, and acquired many newly discovered North American plants from the explorer-botanist Mark Catesby, one of which was the tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera). He may also have introduced the Catalpa, and was one of the first to attempt to grow bananas in Britain.

Branch of the tulip tree

Branch of the tulip tree

Catalpa bignonioides in flower

Catalpa bignonioides in flower

Fairchild may have been motivated in creating his mule by a spirit of pure scientific enquiry (he wrote a paper on the sap of plants for the Royal Society); it has also been suggested that he wanted to increase his nursery’s stock of exotica without having to depend on the vagaries of explorers and sea-captains. Either way, he started a trend: making deliberate crosses to improve size, appearance, hardiness, and in the case of edible plants, taste and quantity of crop was soon a regular practice of professional nurserymen and dilettante botanists alike.

It’s a nice demonstration of the circularity of history that one of the finalists in the RHS ‘Plant of the Year’ last week was a new variety of pink: Dianthus Tequila Sunrise. One hopes Thomas Fairchild would have approved!

Dianthus (Allwood Group) 'Tequila Sunrise' from Whetman Pinks

Dianthus (Allwood Group) ‘Tequila Sunrise’ from Whetman Pinks


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6 Responses to Mr Fairchild’s Mule

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