The Tradescants

The Tradescant’s introduced many new plants to Britain and opened the first public museum in the country.

John Tradescant the Elder and Younger (1656) by Wenceslas HollarGarden Museum

The Tradescant’s were plant hunters, gardeners and collectors of curiosities. They worked at some of the greatest gardens of their day and had their own botanic garden and museum in South Lambeth.

Born in obscurity, little is know about John Tradescant the Elder until 1607 when he married with Elizabeth Day in Meopham, Kent. The following year their son, also named John Tradescant, was born.

The East Parterre at Hatfield House, Hatfield, Hertfordshire (1910/1930) by Unknown photographerHistoric England

In 1610, John Tradescant the Elder began working at Hatfield House for Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury. Here he supervised the kitchen garden and travelled to Europe to buy plants. He visited Flanders in 1610 to buy vines and later embarked on a longer trip to the continent.

On this later trip he brought fruit trees, such as pear, cherry and quince, in various Dutch towns as well as anemones and tulips. The plants were transported back in baskets and locked hampers. He then headed to Paris and Rouen in northern France to source trees such as pomegranates, orange trees, peaches and figs.

After Robert Cecil died in 1612 Tradescant continued working at Hatfield for his son William. Hatfield house still stands today, this photo was taken around 1920.

Fyndon's Gate, St Augustine's Abbey, Canterbury, Kent (1942-06-03) by Unknown photographer, Ministry of WorksHistoric England

By 1615 Tradescant was working for Edward, Lord Woton, in the old monastery garden of St Augustine’s, Canterbury. Tradescant designed three elaborate gardens and became know for growing melons here.The Abbey remains as a ruin, shown here in 1942.

Wereldkaart (ca. 1670 - ca. 1680) by Visscher, Jan deRijksmuseum

John Tradescant the Elder embarked on a four month round trip to Russia in 1618 with Sir Dudley Digges. Digges purpose was to negotiate free transit for English goods to and from China and Persia through Russia. Tradescant was interested in the possible botanical discoveries the trip had to offer, along with British natives he listed plants not previously encountered such as Rosa Acicularis Lindi, a sweet smelling rose.

Two years later he boarded the Pinnace Mercury which was heading to the Mediterranean to suppress pirates. Again Tradescant’s interest was botanical, wanting to collect an ‘Algiers apricot’. The expedition did not achieve its goal but did allow Tradescant the opportunity to collect plants on Spain's Mediterranean coast and on the island of Formentera, near Ibiza. He also visited Tetuan, situated in modern day Morocco, where he described vast areas of gladiolus growing.

George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham (1576 - 1621) by Paul van SomerThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Tradescant was hired by George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, who owned Burley­on-the-Hill in Rutland, New Hall in Essex and two London homes. As well as advising on the gardens and travelling to Europe to buy fruit trees for him, Tradescant also helped the Duke build up a closet of rarities.

Buckingham appointed Tradescant to collect these items in 1635. Following this Tradescant wrote to the Secretary of the Navy, Edward Nicholas, asking that Nicholas purchase all manner of beasts, alive or their parts such as heads and feathers, as well as seeds and plants.Tradescant listed a 'River horse's head of the Bigest that can be Gotten' and 'Any thing that is strange' as desirable items. Nicholas supplied many 'strange' objects and Tradescant would have kept duplicates the Duke didn’t want. In 1628 the Duke was assassinated.

John Tradescant's House, South Lambeth Road, London (1817) by C. DyerGarden Museum

Soon after Buckingham’s death, Tradescant leased a house on South Lambeth Road to establish his own botanic garden and museum, know as the 'Tradescant's Ark'. These both became popular attractions with the curious and scholarly.

Ark Gallery (2017) by John ChaseGarden Museum

The Ark was the first museum in the country, open to anyone who could pay the six pence entry price. Inside was a permanent exhibition of his man made and natural curiosities from weapons and works of art to whale bones.

These curiosities or 'rarities' where collected on his travels to Europe, Russia and North Africa as well those picked up while working for the Duke of Buckingham or sent to Tradescant from friends.

The Ark was intended to represent nature, art, religions and ways of life from across the globe. The Garden Museum has a permanent display, shown here, that recreates Tradescant's Ark.

Tradescantia 'Quicksliver' (2020-02-17) by Helen Perrault-NewbyGarden Museum

Tradescant’s botanic garden introduced lots of new plants to England. Popular house plant Tradescantia, named after the Tradescants, was sent from a friend in Virginia and grown in England for first time at the garden before 1629.

The plant, commonly called ‘inch plant’, ‘Moses in the cradle’ and ‘Wondering Jew’, has many varieties with trailing foliage ranging from green and white to a deep purple. Another common plan sent to Tradescant is the Scarlet Runner Bean (Phaseolus coccineus L.) which arrived from the West Indies.

Elegant Company Playing a Game of Lawn Bowls (c.1600) by UnknownGarden Museum

In addition to running the garden and Museum in Lambeth, Tradescant was appointed by King Charles I as Keeper of the Gardens, Vines and Silkworms at Oatlands Palace in 1930. Oatlands was the palace of Henrietta Maria 'the rose and lily queen'. Whilst working here he supervised the addition of an arbour in 1632 as well a orange garden and new bowling green, which would have been similar to one pictured here.

Tradescant became associated with the Oxford Physic Garden in 1636. His involvement with the garden, whose main purpose was to cultivate medicinal plants, lasted for just over a year and it is likely he brought plants to the Physic Garden from South Lambeth.

St Mary-at-Lambeth and London by Wenceslaus Hollar (1647) by Wenceslaus HollarGarden Museum

In 1638, John Tradescant the Elder died and his funeral took place on 17th April in St Mary’s at Lambeth.

Miniature of John Tradescant the Younger (1660s) by After Thomas De CritzGarden Museum

John Tradscant the Younger had been studying at King’s School, Canterbury, between 1619 and 1623. He married Jane Hurte in 1928 and, before her death in 1635, they had two children Frances and John. From 1634 he was a sworn freeman of the Worshipful Company of Gardeners, which had cost him 12 shillings and 6 pence.

John Tradescant the Elder and Younger (1656) by Wenceslas HollarGarden Museum

In 1638 when his father passed, John Tradescant the Younger was in Virginia gathering flowers and plants. He returned with about two hundred new plants as well as dried speciums and seeds. These included the American Plane (Platanus-occidentalis L.), the Swamp Cypress (Taxodium Distichun L. Rich.) and the Virginian Jasmine (Celsemium semprevirens L .Aiton). He succeeded his father as Royal Gardner at Oatlands and married Hester Pooks in the autumn after his return.

Tulip Tree from William Curtis's Botanical Magazine (1794) by William CurtisGarden Museum

John Tradescant the Younger made two more trips to Virginia, first with passage under Bertram Hobert and after under William Lea in 1653. He returned from these trips with many more plants including the red and yellow Trumpet Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens L.), the Sensitive Plant (Mimosa sensitiva L.) and the Virginian Yucca (Yucca filamentosa L.).

Mimosa sensitiva - Plant Introduction by John Tradescant (1815) by Sydenham Teast EdwardsGarden Museum

Both Tradescants were incredibly skilled to be able to transport living plants around the world at this time, ensuring enough fresh water was available throughout the changing temperatures experienced on a trip. They also had to protect the plants from rough sea and salty sea spray.

'Musaeum Tradescantianum': Catalogue of John Tradescant's Ark, Lambeth (1656) by John TradescantGarden Museum

Back in South Lambeth, the Tradescant’s garden business provided their main source of income, staying open throughout the English civil war (1842 – 1651). During this time more common medicinal plants and food were grown in the garden at Lambeth.

When Tradescant started cataloguing his collection and making a garden list, his friends Elias Ashmole, an ambitious lawyer, and Dr. Thomas Warton offered to help. The result was the Musaeum Tradescantianum published in 1656.

Tradescant's Ark Shells (2018) by Garden MuseumGarden Museum

In 1652 the Tradescant’s only son died. The collection had many highly prized item such as shells and Tradescant wanted the collection to be preserved. John’s final wish, written in his will, was that it be donated to a university.

Portair: Mrs Hester Tradescant (1798) by James CaulfieldGarden Museum

At a party in 1659 Ashmole, who was presumably intended to execute the will, produced a deed of gift which John Tradescant signed without scrutinising it. The deed gave Ashmole the collection outright and, on realising this, the Tradescants were furious.

A month after the death of John Tradescant the younger in 1662, Ashmole issued a Bill in Chancery to his widow Hester. The judge decided in favour of Elias Ashmole however, Hester was entitled to keep the collection until her death.

Ashmole received the collection from Hester in 1678, two years before her death, and donated it to Oxford University in his name along with his own collection. This donation was the foundation of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

The Tradescants Tomb (2020-02-10) by Helen Perrault-NewbyGarden Museum

The Tradescant's Tomb

John Tradescant the Younger was buried beside his father in the church yard of St Mary’s at Lambeth.  Hester commissioned a magnificent tomb for the site as a family monument.  In 1773 the tomb, being in a state of decay, was repaired by public subscription; a new top slab of blue granite was substituted for the original black marble one, and in 1853, having fallen into a state of decay, it was entirely restored according to its original form which celebrates the Tradescant's life and work. In 1977 the church was closed. Rosemary and John Nicholson started the Garden Museum on the site, saving the historic building from demolition, persevering the Tradescant's Tomb and telling the story of their role in the history of British gardening.   

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