Although, in my previous existence, I had been involved in reissuing the hagiographic two-volume ‘life and letters’ of Sir J.E. Smith (1759–1828), founding president of the Linnean Society, written by his delightfully named widow, Pleasance, I did not actually read it until quite recently. The work was published in 1832, by the firm of Longman at its most expansively partner-ridden: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, Green and Longman.
My motivation to get stuck in was my happening upon a pamphlet published by Sir James in 1818, Considerations Respecting Cambridge, more particularly relating to the Botanical Professorship, in which he defended his position with regard to the professorship of botany, which his good friend Thomas Martyn (1735–1825), the incumbent (though he had not lectured since 1796) had suggested could be his, in spite of his not being a Cambridge man and (worse) being a Unitarian and not an Anglican.
Smith had the support of Sir Joseph Banks in this endeavour (ho ho), and indeed the great man had been his mentor and sponsor during his early years in London. He had gone there to study under John Hunter after obtaining his first medical degree in Edinburgh, where he was taught the Linnaean system of botany by Dr John Hope, founder of the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, who furnished him with the crucial letter of introduction to Banks.
It was clear from Smith’s letters to and from his father (a well-to-do Norwich silk and cloth merchant, and a Unitarian) that although he went through all the necessary motions to qualify as a physician, his enthusiasm for natural history, and especially botany, was gaining the upper hand. The day which fixed his destiny was 23 December 1783. He was breakfasting with Banks at Soho Square when a letter arrived from the executors of the younger Linnaeus (1741–83) offering Banks the entire Linnaean library and collections at the price of 1000 guineas.
According to Smith, Banks ‘handing me the letter to read, advised me strongly to make the purchase, as a thing suitable to my taste, and which would do me honour’. Negotiations, both with Sweden and with his devoted but anxious father, who he hoped would put up the money, followed; but when a full catalogue of the collections – including of course Linnaeus’s great herbarium – arrived, and his father came down to London to review it, and to hear the enthusiastic account of Banks’s librarian, Jonas Dryander, who was very familiar with the material, he was persuaded, and lent his son the money. (There is an excellent account here.)
At the end of October 1784, the collections arrived in London: 19,000 herbarium sheets, 3,200 insects, 1500 shells, 2500 minerals, almost 3,000 books and about 3,000 letters and manuscripts, in 26 cases. (The shipping cost was £8, and the captain got a £5 bonus.) Smith rented rooms in Paradise Street, Chelsea (where Banks’s mother had lived in her widowhood), and with the help of Dryander spent the best part of a year working through the material, re-cataloguing, organising and disposing of duplicates (some to Banks).
Medicine had clearly taken a back seat, and Smith senior was becoming deeply concerned (though he was delighted when his son was unanimously elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in May 1785). James Edward, however, came up with a clever idea – he would go to the Continent, to continue his medical education by a visit to the famous university of Leiden, and to improve his mind more generally by doing the Grand Tour.
He began his travels on 16 June 1786: ‘The name Linnaeus, he tells us, opened every door and cabinet to him’, though letters of introduction from Banks probably helped too; ‘… he is an enthusiast in natural history, and I really hope will one day become one of the chief supports of science’. This was addressed to Professor Johannes Nicolaas Sebastiaan Allamand (?1713–87), originally of Lausanne, but now professor of mathematics and philosophy at Leiden, who had been an F.R.S. since 1747, and was an enthusiastic natural historian, who introduced a ‘Cabinet of Natural History’ to the university.
Shortly after his arrival in Leiden, Smith presented a dissertation, ‘De generatione’, which he then had to defend in Latin for forty minutes, to one Professor Sandiforte; the following day, ‘I was examined by the College, and had two aphorisms of Hippocrates given me to write on, which I gave in this day [26 June], and am now entitled to my degree when I please: I only wait for the printing of my thesis.’
Thus having in ten days become a graduate of the most prestigious medical faculty in Europe, Smith proceeded from city to city, and savant to savant, across the Continent, writing home to his parents and to natural historian friends on a regular basis. At Delft, he not only saw the monumental tomb of William the Silent, but ‘I put my fingers into two holes in the wall of the house where he was murdered, which were made by the pistol balls after they had passed through his body.’
In Paris, he met up with the remarkable Pierre Marie Auguste Broussonet (1761–1807), a devoted Linnaean who had come to London in 1780 to help classify Bank’s fish specimens from Cook’s first voyage. Returning to France two years later, he took with him a present from Banks, the first Ginkgo biloba to reach France; he was also a friend of John Sibthorp, whose Flora Graeca Smith would later bring to publication after his early death.
Broussonet showed Smith the sights, including the royal court at Versailles: ‘old hags’, he wrote to his father, ‘ugly beyond what you can conceive’; the king ‘rather fat, his countenance agreeable’; the Valois tombs at St Denis; the duc d’Orléans’s famous picture gallery; the herbarium of Tournefort.
He also visited the tomb of Rousseau, whom he admired as a botanist (his Letters on the Elements of Botany had been translated by Thomas Martyn in 1785) as well as a philosopher, and was ecstatic about Ermenonville and its surroundings, eventually plucking up the courage to approach his widow: ‘She received us with the greatest politeness and appeared much pleased with our visit … the King of England allows her fifty pounds a year … Le grand Monarque allows her nothing’.
From Paris, the pattern continued. The sights – the Pont du Gard, the Roman remains at Nîmes – but also Montpellier, where his friend Broussonet’s father was professor of medicine: ‘We could gladly stay here a month or two had we not greater objects in view.’ Marseilles (‘by far the finest town I have seen in France’), but also Brignolle, home of the Linnaean botanist Louis Gérard. Then Cannes (‘a little sea-port close to the water’s edge’) and Nice, where ‘The natives fawn upon, laugh at, and cheat the strangers, who come here from all parts of England, Scotland, and Ireland, to get rid of their consumptions and their money.’
In mid-November Smith arrived in Genoa, where he stayed with the nobleman and naturalist Marchese Giacomo Filippo Durazzo (1719–1812), as one of the family, for two months, before setting off for Pisa. At Florence, he did the art – ‘we spent eight days, the greatest part of which was passed in the [Uffizi] gallery’ (though a botanic friend regretted he had not seen Micheli’s herbarium), but stopped at Siena mostly to meet Dr Mascagni, an authority on the lymphatic system. He arrived in Rome on 7 February, and rushed round seeing sights (including the now overweight and hard-drinking Young Pretender, who would be dead in under a year) before moving on to Naples, where Banks had provided letters to both Sir William Hamilton and Mr Greater, the gardener recruited by Banks for the queen of Naples.
When Smith turned north again, he received a touching note from his father: ‘I am told the road from Milan to Turin is in danger of banditti. I beg of you omit no precautions, nor spare expense, for your safety. I write now for the caution I give you, which I don’t let your mother see.’ He wrote back from Rome, with art news: ‘… your Virgin with the Infant Jesus and St John, which now hangs disgracefully on the staircase, is by no other hand than Raphael’. (Was it?)
Next, he crossed the Apennines, noting spring flowers by the roadside, and stopped at Loreto to see the Holy House (he was very interested in religious practice in Italy, and not at all disapproving or fearful of ‘contagion’ by papists, as so many of his Anglican comptemporaries were), arriving at Bologna on 5 May, and taking to rivers and canals to reach Venice, which he found ‘prodigiously dirty’: however, in the home of the legendary theriaca he ‘picked up much curious Materia Medica’, while ‘amazed at the state of superstition, ignorance and folly in which physic seems to be at Venice’.
He made his way home slowly, staying again with the Durazzo family in Genoa for a month so that he could study Marchese Giacomo’s shell collection. He then moved through Switzerland, botanising and meeting scientists including de Saussure, Tissot and Wyttenbach,
before returning to Paris (where he had meanwhile been made a member of the Royal Agricultural Society), eventually arriving back in England in November 1787.
There were two major consequences of Smith’s Grand Tour. In 1793 he published a three-volume Sketch of a Tour about his travels, in which he unfortunately managed to offend Queen Charlotte both because of his enthusiasm for the dangerous Rousseau but also because he referred to Queen Marie Antoinette as a ‘Messalina’, thus scuppering an initiative for him to teach botany to the queen and princesses. (Did he, one wonders in passing, know Mrs Delany before her death in 1788?) But, more significantly, he seems on his return to have abandoned (with his father’s acquiescence) any intention of actually practising medicine.
He founded the Linnean Society in 1788 (and later regretted that its charter established that spelling, rather than ‘Linnaean’, which he preferred), gave talks and lectures on botany, published prolifically, and in general became a Grand Old Man of natural history (in spite of moving from the scientific epicentre, London, back to Norwich after his marriage to Pleasance in 1796). He was regarded by many as rather vain, but the enthusiasm, good nature, and immense affection for his many devoted friends, which shine through the letters of which this ‘life’ mostly consists, leave the impression of an intellectual omnivore whom it would have been a delight to meet.