Whether history has been kind to Andrew Coltée Ducarel (1713–85) rather depends on which source you use. Francis Grose and Horace Walpole seem both to have loathed him (but didn’t the latter loathe almost everyone?). Others, including John Nichols, have had more pleasant things to say about him. Why should we care?
Because he was an interesting man: the Librarian of Lambeth Palace from 1757 to his death (seeing out five archbishops of Canterbury), a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries from 1737, and one of the first fellows nominated by the president and council after the society received its Royal Charter in 1755.
He was also a fellow of the Royal Society, and as a result of his European travels became an honorary fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, and of the Society of Antiquaries in Cortona, Italy, and of Cassel in Germany.
His original day job was as a ‘civilian’, i.e. a Doctor of Civil Law. He was born in Paris of Huguenot parents: his father was a banker from Normandy who had recently been ennobled before his death in 1718. A new wave of anti-Protestant persecution caused his widow to flee with her three small sons, first to Amsterdam, and then in 1721 to London, settling in Greenwich, where she married another exile, wealthy timber merchant Jacques Girardot.
In 1828 young Andrew was sent to Eton, where, the following year, he suffered a serious accident resulting in the loss of an eye, and three months under the care of the physician and collector Sir Hans Sloane. One of Grose’s unkinder barbs refers to this misfortune: ‘ … The verses of Virgil on the Cyclops, did not very ill describe him: Monstrum horrendum, etc.’. [‘A fearful monster, vast and shapeless, lost of the light.’]
He furthered his education first at Trinity College, Oxford, and then at St John’s, graduating as a Bachelor of Civil Law in 1738. After that, he transferred to Trinity Hall, Cambridge, where he became a Doctor of Civil Law in 1742. He was admitted as a member of the College of Advocates the following year, and was thus qualified for all sorts of legal/civil administration roles, which he indeed picked up in large numbers, acting as a judge in the ecclesiastical courts of St Katherine’s by the Tower in London (a royal peculiar outside the jurisdiction of the civil and criminal courts), and the city and diocese of Canterbury, and various subdeaneries thereof, as well as being appointed in 1756 (the Seven Years’ War having just broken out) to the High Court of the Admiralty, with a role in the allocation of the value of prize ships.
It’s not clear whether he actually needed to earn a living: he had left Oxford as a ‘grand compounder’ (i.e. someone whose fee for graduation was set high because of his income level), and it may be that he could afford clerks to do the donkey work of these various appointments while he devoted himself to antiquarian subjects – or indeed to wine and women, as Grose, ever spiteful, has it: ‘The Doctor was always a great lover of the ladies as well as his glass; the latter grew on him so much, that he was constantly drunk every day, a little before his death: his liquor was generally port, or as he called it, ‘‘kill-priest’’.’
In fact, Ducarel married his housekeeper, Sarah Desborough (‘a sober careful woman’ says Grose), who was eighteen years older than him, after she had nursed him devotedly through an illness. The devotion appears to have been mutual: when she injured herself falling off a garden ladder at the age of 68 (there’s a warning to us all!), he was ‘distracted’ until she recovered; and sadly, the shock of learning while in Canterbury that his wife was dying in Lambeth, and the subsequent rush to her side, carried him off three days later. She in fact outlived him by six years.
His antiquarian interests were numerous, but he did a lot of work on the history of Lambeth and Croydon, and was among the earliest to make a serious study of Anglo-Norman architecture. He was effectively the first professional librarian at Lambeth Palace (which was previously a clerical sinecure, in spite of being, as Ducarel himself said, ‘the greatest MSS collection in this kingdom as relates to ecclesiastical affairs’), and worked hard to produce order (and a usable catalogue) out of pre-existing chaos. He was also appointed, with two colleagues, to begin the mammoth task of sorting out the state papers in Whitehall, thus becoming the effective precursor of the Public Record Office.
His interest in Lambeth led him to write a short piece on the Tradescants (in part of whose former house in Lambeth he himself lived). This ‘Letter from Dr. Ducarel, F.R.S. and F.S.A. to William Watson, M.D. F.R.S. upon the early Cultivation of Botany in England; and some Particulars about John Tradescant, a great Promoter of that Science, as well as Natural History, in the last Century, and Gardener to King Charles I’ originally appeared in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, and was published by Bowyer and Nichols as a pamphlet in 1773. (The pamphlet has two plates of the elder and younger John Tradescants, taken from Hollar’s prints in the Museum Tradescantianum, in addition to the various sketches of the Tradescant graves in the churchyard of St Mary at Lambeth.)
The addressee of the letter, William Watson (1715–87), was another interesting man, the résumé of whose life in the ODNB leaves one feeling quite exhausted. Born in Smithfield, the son of a corn chandler, he attended Merchant Taylors’ School and was afterwards apprenticed to an apothecary. Delightfully, he won a prize offered by the Society of Apothecaries to the apprentice who was able to identify the most wild plants on country walks starting from the Chelsea Physic Garden: part of it was John Ray‘s Synopsis methodica stirpium Britannicarum.
In 1738, he married, and set up as an apothecary in Aldersgate, coming under the influence, as he pursued his botanic interests, of the (almost entirely absent from Cambridge) Cambridge professor of botany, John Martyn, who took him to Royal Society meetings and introduced him to Sir Hans Sloane. He became a fellow in 1741, and joined several other clubs and societies which held their learned (and no doubt convivial) meetings in various London inns. He also rose socially, becoming the personal physician of the Whig magnate Lord Hardwicke. Much of his early scientific work was on botany and plant identification. He took a keen interest in scientific work being done abroad, and the first review in English of Linnaeus’ Species plantarum was published by him in 1754 in the Gentleman’s Magazine. Per Kalm stayed with Watson while preparing for his botanical expedition to North America, and on Sloane’s recommendation he undertook the layout of the gardens of the British Museum.
In the mid 1740s, he turned his main focus to electricity, corresponding with Benjamin Franklin among many others, and won the Copley Medal of the Royal Society for his experimental work. He still had time to act as the physician to the Foundling Hospital, and write detailed papers on the source and spread of epidemics, as well as advocating inoculation for smallpox. But his botanic interests did not flag, and on his death Richard Pulteney described him as ‘the living lexicon of botany’. And – returning to the Tradescants – in 1749 he wrote a report on their derelict garden in Lambeth, which Ducarel refers to in his piece, wishing that ‘the lovers of Botany had visited this once famous garden, before, or at least in, the beginning of the present century’.
Ducarel’s brief outline of botany in England argues that, far from having vanished after the fall of the Roman empire to reappear only in the sixteenth century, it was an art or craft well known to the Anglo-Saxons, citing herbaria in the Bodleian and Harleian collections. However: ‘From this time I have met with no MS. concerning Botany, till the thirteenth century, when Bishop Tanner mentions three MSS. on this subject, written by Gilebertus Legleus, sive Anglicus, a physician, who flourished in the year 1210 …’. (Thomas Tanner (1674–1735) was bishop of St Asaph and a well-known antiquarian and collector, who crops up in Hearne and in John Nichols’ Illustrations: a major disaster in his life was the sinking of a barge transporting his manuscript collection by water from Norwich to Oxford, though his surviving and salvaged pieces fill 473 volumes, now in the Bodleian.)
Ducarel regards a ‘Greate Herball’, printed by Peter Treveris in Southwark in 1516 (and noted by Joseph Ames in his Typographical Antiquities) as the earliest such work published in England, after which botany and horticulture became the subject of much more scholarly attention. He quotes Richard Gough’s description, in his British Topography, of John Gerard’s garden in Holborn, ‘where he raised 1100 different plants and trees’ though noting that ‘He might have add, that Gerrard [sic] had another physic garden in Old-street, containing a great variety of plants; a printed catalogue of which is to be found in the libraries of the curious.’ (This must be Gerard’s 1596 Catalogus arborum, fruticum ac plantarum tam indigenarum, quam exoticarum, in horto Iohannis Gerardi ciuis & chirurgi Londinensis nascentium, dedicated to his patron William Cecil, and now extremely rare.)
‘But Gerrard had a famous cotemporary, who greatly advanced that valuable science, and of whom but little hath hitherto been said by the modern biographers. John Tradescant is the person meant. …’
Ducarel goes on to give a short account of the life of John Tradescant the Elder, who may ‘be justly considered as the earliest collector (in this kingdom) of every thing that was curious in Natural History … He had also a good collection of coins and medals of all sorts, besides a great variety of uncommon rarities.’ He inserts a list of Tradescant’s rare plants, drawn from John Parkinson’s 1629 Paradisi in sole paradisus terrestris, pointing out that there is ‘scarce any plant extant in the known world, that will not, with proper care, thrive in this kingdom’.
This short piece, coupled with Watson’s own researches on the garden, revived interest in the career of the two Tradescants, and, it could be argued, ultimately led, inter alia, to the founding of the Garden Museum in the church of St Mary at Lambeth, the reopening of which in spring 2017 will undoubtedly be one of the high spots of the forthcoming horticultural year.