The Oak Spring Garden Library contains almost 200 illustrations of plants that were painted in Canton (Guangzhou) and Macau in the late 1760s and early 1770s under the direction of John Bradby Blake (1745-1773), a young supercargo for the British East India Company. Bradby Blake was a well-educated, and curious about many aspects of Chinese culture, but he was especially interested the plants that he encountered, not only in identifying them but also in understanding their uses.
Bradby Blake embarked on his first voyage to China at the age of 21 in 1766, and returned in 1768 as a resident supercargo. Between then and his death in 1773, while residing in Canton and Macau, Bradby Blake enlisted the Chinese artist Mauk-Sow-U to illustrate the plants he encountered mainly in gardens and markets. The resulting magnificent illustrations are bound in four patterned silk brocade folios.
This illustration of Ginkgo biloba is an early depiction of ginkgo not long after it was introduced to Europe. A note by Blake in the collection of the Linnaean Society remarks, “at Canton the nuts are eat in various ways: and are brought down for sale dryed by fire in great quantities to Canton. Procuring seeds this hint must be particularly alluded to as also in many other seed.” Living ginkgo were widely distributed in Europe by the eighteenth century.
During his time in China Bradby Blake added new dimensions to the networks of plant exchange that existed before him and continued long after his death. He sent back to Britain seeds and living plants that he thought might be useful, either at home, or in British colonies on the other side of the world.
In a related project, at the time of his death Bradby Blake was amassing material for a comprehensive treatment of all the useful plants that he encountered. However, Blake’s motivations were not solely in plants of great commercial value, he also sent back plants that seemingly had no great utility, but that were merely interesting novelties. Blake’s specimens were distributed via his father to ‘His Majesty’s Garden at Kew’, the Apothecaries’ Company Physic Garden in Chelsea and many other selected institutions, nurseries and individuals.