This watercolor illustration of Laurus persea, or avocado pear, is included in the 1799 work, A Collection of Exotics, from the Island of Antigua, by the botanical artist Lydia Byam (1772-unknown). The Byams were a powerful, slave-owning family who operated sugar plantations on the island. While little biographical information has been preserved on Byam, a letter bound in to one of her rare editions has identified her as the older sister of William Gunthorpe, governor of Antigua. Byam’s social status and connections gave her the unique opportunity of to produce her work in Antigua and distribute it in Britain, thereby helping satisfy increased interest in the plants growing in the expanding British Empire.
Byam’s description for this vividly-colored avocado reads: “This tree bears a fruit which, from a peculiar appearance, and its highly delicious taste, is commonly called Vegetable Marrow. There are two species, one bearing green, the other a red fruit; when ripe, the skin is easily peeled off, and then discovers the substance, that has the appearance of marrow.” Many of the specimens depicted in Byam’s work had never been utilized by European audiences. Her research aided the transfer of botanical and medicinal knowledge to Britain from its West Indian colonies.