The Mustard Plant of the Scriptures

Discussion of conifers and mention of David Don brings me back to Mr Aylmer Bourke Lambert (1761–1842), whose great work on the genus was published in seven parts, with plates by Ferdinand Bauer (collaborator on John Sibthorp’s Flora graeca, artist on the voyage of H.M.S. Investigator), between 1803 and 1807 (10 guineas plain, 40 guineas coloured), with later volumes co-written with Don. However, I first came across his name almost exactly a year ago as the author of a very short note in the Transactions of the Linnean Society for 1837 on the ‘Mustard Plant of the Scriptures’, which had been acquired, as a ripped-out leaf, by the Cory Library at Cambridge University Botanic Garden.

Sinapis nigra (now Brassica nigra) is ‘normal’ mustard. The Phytolacca are pokeweeds (from the Americas and east Asia, not the Middle East), and Salvadora persica is the toothbrush tree, or mustard tree, of which the twigs were used for millennia in the Middle East to clean the teeth.

I would not have paused over it had not two familiar names caught my eye: Captains Irby and Mangles. Charles Irby (1789–1845) and James Mangles (1786–1867), officers in the Royal Navy and later brothers-in-law, left England in 1816 for a tour of the continent. As the preface to their account says: ‘Curiosity at first, and an increasing admiration of antiquities as they advanced, carried them at length through several parts of the Levant.’ From Cairo, they made a journey down the Nile, meeting with Giovanni Belzoni at Abu Simbel and exploring the ruins. Returning to Cairo, they then headed across the desert and along the coast of the Holy Land, reaching Aleppo and exploring Syria. On their return to England, they were persuaded to compile a book from their letters to friends and family, and had it privately printed in 1823: it is a very good read.

Mangles published The Floral Calendar, on town gardening, in 1839, but he is better known for the business he developed with his brothers Robert and George, importing Australian seeds and plants into Britain: this came about after he visited the Swan River Colony in Western Australia, where his cousin’s husband was lieutenant-governor, and James Drummond, the pioneering botanist and gardener, became his chief plant hunter.

To find Irby and Mangles among Lambert’s acquaintance is not surprising, as he seems to have known almost everyone in the early nineteenth-century botanical world – Sir Joseph Banks, Sir William Hooker, Sir J.E. Smith, Augustin Pyramus de Candolle … Born in Wiltshire, he was educated at a school in Hackney, but spent his holidays with his stepmother’s father, naturalist and painter Henry Seymer (1714–85), at Hanford, near Blandford Forum in Dorset in Dorset.

There he had the opportunity of meeting the local physician Richard Pulteney, and through him the duchess of Portland herself (and presumably her companion Mrs Delany, and the great Daniel Solander). At St Mary Hall, Oxford (now part of Oriel College, and which he left without taking a degree) he also moved in botanical circles, with Sibthorp, and Daniel Lysons, also at St Mary Hall, and later a noted topographer and a friend of Horace Walpole, among his acquaintance. Lambert had no need to earn his own living: the family income (which he inherited outright on his father’s death in 1802) came from the Boyton House estate in Wiltshire and land in Ireland, but also from sugar estates in Jamaica. In 1782 he married, in 1788 he became a founder member of the Linnean Society, and contributed many papers to its Transactions, as well as serving as Vice-President from 1796; he was the last survivor among the founders.

Aymer Bourke Lambert, engraving by W. Evans (1810). (Credit: The Wellcome Library)

He compiled a herbarium of British and Irish plants (visiting Ireland in 1789 and 1790); one of his finds as a field botanist was Cirsium tuberosum, now widely grown as a garden species but even then rare in its native habitats in Britain, which included his home in Wiltshire.

A fold-out plate from the Description of the Genus Cinchona.

He was also greatly interested in foreign plants, publishing A Description of the Genus Cinchona in 1797 before starting to plan his work on conifers. But he had wider interests, too, especially in antiquities – he assisted Sir Richard Colt Hoare in the excavation of Wiltshire tumuli.

I hadn’t realised until I started looking at the volumes of the Transactions that in the early years the Linnean Society by no means restricted itself to botany: there are also articles about shells, insects and mammals (some of these described as being submitted to the Society’s Zoological Club); and Banks himself donated his insect collection to it. Several authors, unsurprisingly, recur frequently: Sir J.E. Smith himself, Lambert, Pulteney, Thunberg (‘Knight of the order of Wasa, Professor of Botany and Medicine in the University of Upsal, Foreign Member of the Linnean Society’), Thomas Martyn, William Withering, Robert Brown, and (even) Richard Salisbury.

It is also possible to track the career of Thomas Hardwicke, who as a captain in 1804 contributed a piece about the Giant Rat of the East Indies (Mus giganteus, now Bandicota indica – one wonders if Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had noticed this paper when he produced one of the great throw-away lines in English literature: ‘Matilda Briggs was not the name of a young woman, Watson, … It was a ship which is associated with the giant rat of Sumatra, a story for which the world is not yet prepared?).

Engraved portrait of Thomas Hardwicke, the frontispiece of the first volume of Illustrations of Indian Zoology.

When writing in 1807 on a species of jerboa, Hardwicke was a lieutenant-colonel, and by volume 15 of 1827 was a major-general, introducing ‘a new Genus of the Class Mammalia, from the Himalayan Chain of Hills between Nepaul and the Snowy Mountains’, giving a formal Latin definition and a description in English: he does not name it, but compares it to the genera Nasua and Procyon (coatimundis and raccoons).

An exquisite Felis silvestris ornata (the Asian wild cat), from Hardwicke’s collection.

Hardwicke (1756–1835) used Indian illustrators to depict his extensive collection of specimens – 4,500 paintings, now in the Natural History Museum – and on his return to Britain collaborated with J.E. Gray of the British Museum to publish Illustrations of Indian Zoology (1830–5). He has numerous fish, lizards, birds, two species of bat and a tree named after him.

Getting back to Lambert, he too wrote on non-botanical topics: in 1804, on the Bos frontalis (the Indian gayal), in 1807 on a new species of kangaroo, Macropus elegans (probably the whiptail wallaby, Macropus parryi).

Bos frontalis, from Lambert’s 1804 article.

‘Macropus elegans’, from Lambert’s 1807 article.

Macropus parryi, the whiptail wallaby.

But his main interest remained botany, and he was particularly keen to acquire herbarium specimens, including whole collections. In 1808 he described to the Linnean Society his purchase at auction of the herbarium of Peter Simon Pallas (1741–1811), which ‘contains some thousands of specimens in very fine preservation, especially those which belong to the Russian empire … It also contains many hundreds of specimens given to Pallas by various celebrated botanists’, including Georg Forster: ‘I find several specimens here not in his own Herbarium, which I purchased some years ago from his father-in-law, Professor Heyne.’

Lambert in old age, from a set, the ‘Professional, Scientific and Literary Portrait Gallery’, engraved by Thomas Bridgford. (Credit: The Wellcome Library)

Lambert was generous in making his collections available to scholars, including David Don, who acted as his librarian and curator (simultaneously after 1822 with his post of librarian of the Linnean Society). However, he never reorganised his various separate herbaria into a coherent whole, leading to confusion about what they actually contained. (There is apparently a similar problem in tracing the bibliographic history of the conifers book, which came to exist in many different versions with differing plates and text.) The end was disastrous. As the ODNB succinctly puts it: ‘Towards the end, Lambert’s income greatly diminished [perhaps the Jamaican resources dried up after the abolition of slavery?] but his expenditure did not. His financial and domestic affairs became chaotic, his debts staggering. Ill health and family disputes marred the end of his life.’

He had hoped that the Trustees of the British Museum would pay off his debts (estimated at £2,500 even after the sale of his London house, his library and his paintings) in exchange for the herbaria, but they declined to do so. The collection was put up for sale in June 1842, and – as shown in this excellent article – parts are now dispersed all over the world. Sadly, many specimens were destroyed in Berlin during the Second World War, but it is possible that others, including type-specimens, may survive unrecognised …

Lambert seems to have been an engaging and generous individual, with a gift for friendship, and an unquenchable enthusiasm for the natural world in all its aspects, from the Indian bull to the mustard seed.

Sinapis nigra, from Volume 4 of Flora batava (1822), by Jan Kops (1765–1849).

A pity, clearly, that his approach to collecting was not rather more systematic – but is that perhaps part of his charm?


This entry was posted in Bibliography, Botany, Gardens, History, London, Natural history and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Mustard Plant of the Scriptures

  1. Pingback: The Legacy of Sir J.E. Smith | Professor Hedgehog's Journal

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