The Unhappy Countess

I was lured into reading about the melodramatic and unhappy life of Mary Eleanor Bowes (1749–1800), by the National Trust, who said, on its website on Gibside, one of her many homes, that she was a botanist. Further investigation revealed that she had been carefully educated, in botany among other subjects, by her father, George Bowes, coal magnate and MP (1701–60) who had built the spectacular landscape gardens at Gibside, but that once she became, by his death, probably the richest heiress in Britain, she had rather less time for this interest. Continue reading

Posted in Art, Biography, Botany, Gardens, History, Literature, London, Museums and Galleries | Tagged , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Plant of the Month: July 2020

The other day, I found myself standing under a Broussonetia tree in the Cambridge University Botanic Garden (so happily now reopened, though you do have to book), and was reminded of my oft-repeated note to self to find out more about this paper mulberry, at one time so important to the civilisations of the Far East and the Pacific, but now in many places an invasive ‘weed’, with pollen so toxic that it is a severe danger to those with allergies. Continue reading

Posted in Archaeology, Art, Botany, Exploration, Gardens, History, Museums and Galleries, Natural history, Printing and Publishing | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Object of the Month: July 2020

This was going to be Object of the Month for November 2019, but various unfortunate events from a database problem up to Covid-19 have rather got in the way. However, onwards and upwards! Continue reading

Posted in Art, Biography, History, London, Museums and Galleries | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Captain Gurle

I came across the name of Captain Gurle (also spelled Garle and Garrle) in the excellent Economic History of the English Garden, by Sir Roderick Floud, a really cracking book, with eye-opening figures about the importance of gardening in the English economy since 1660 or thereabouts, but written in a way that an innumerate moron (i.e. me) can actually understand. Continue reading

Posted in Biography, Botany, Gardens, History, London, Museums and Galleries, Natural history | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Plant of the Month: June 2020

I never cease to be amazed that garden centres and nurseries actually sell seeds and plants of the Mexican fleabane, Erigeron karvinskianus. In my garden, nothing (except perhaps the dreaded pellitory) flourishes and reproduces better, and it grows best in no soil at all. (I am not one of those who like their paving clean and unencumbered by plants in the cracks.) Continue reading

Posted in Biography, Botany, Exploration, Gardens, Natural history | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ruskin Relics

I came across a reference to this 1903 book last week, and was fortunate enough to find a copy (on Abebooks), which arrived a few days ago. It was presented by ‘Miss Hutchinson’ to Alexandra Hall in 1905. Alexandra Hall (of which the bookplate is in English and Welsh) was the first hall of residence for female students at the University College of Aberystwyth, and was founded in 1896; by 1911, it housed 168 students. Many pages of the book, and all the plates, are stamped as a sign of possession: what worries me slightly is that there is no de-accession mark. Continue reading

Posted in Art, Bibliography, Biography, History, Italy, Literature, Museums and Galleries, Printing and Publishing | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments


Anyone with even a transient acquaintance with the life and works of William Morris will probably know that, inter multa alia, he founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in 1877, saying that ‘We are only the trustees for those who come after us.’ I have had the pleasure of visiting their present headquarters at 37 Spital Square more than once on the occasion of the annual (though sadly not this year!) Open Gardens of Spitalfields, but it occurred to me only quite recently that I ought to join. Continue reading

Posted in History, London, Museums and Galleries | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Pliny of Switzerland

I vaguely knew of Conrad Gessner (often spelled Gesner) as a botanist, but it wasn’t until I was tracing the taxonomy of the bluetit a few days ago that I became aware of his wide-ranging work across the fields of natural history, medicine, bibliography and philology. Reading more about him has made me realise what a polymath he was, but also how much the development of his talents depended on the good will of a remarkable number of people. Continue reading

Posted in Art, Bibliography, Biography, Botany, History, Natural history, Printing and Publishing | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Bluetit

One of the upsides of the lockdown (from my own purely selfish point of view) is that I have been able to spend much more time watching the birds in my garden, at a time of year when they are of course at their most active. Many people have commented on the joy of hearing birdsong without the constant background rumble of traffic: at the moment, a local blackbird sits in a tree overhanging the garden and kicks off at about 4 a.m. (or so I am told by Him Indoors, who says he wakes him up) continuing on and off throughout the day and even after dusk. Continue reading

Posted in Art, Gardens, Natural history | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

Plant of the Month: April 2020

Greifswald, now in the province of Vorpommern-Mecklenburg in Germany, is one of those coastal cities in the Baltic which have always been part of the Debatable Land of north-central Europe. It is closer to Malmö and Copenhagen than to Berlin, and only 50 miles from the (now) Polish border, and to have an understanding of its long and complicated history you need at least a glancing acquaintance with the equally complicated history of the Griffin Dukes of Pomerania and of Bolesław III Wrymouth of Poland, who blinded his brother in one of those family wrangles that were so common in the middle ages. Continue reading

Posted in Biography, Botany, Gardens, History, Natural history, Printing and Publishing | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments