A terrific bargain available once a month in London is a ‘Treasures Tour’ and visit to the Library of the Linnean Society, in Burlington House, Piccadilly. (I have now managed one way and another to get inside the Royal Astronomical Society and the Society of Antiquaries – as well, of course, as the Royal Academy – so I have only to tick off the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Geological Society (home of the William Smith map, which apparently you can just drop in and see during office hours. I wish I’d realised that yesterday, but never mind, I will be back soon to see Charles I at the RA …).
We assembled in the entrance lobby, where I was struck immediately by a familiar face: the lovely Pleasance Smith, wife and biographer of Sir James.
She inherited all his goods, including the Linnaean collections, and on her death in 1877 (she lived to be 103, surviving her husband by 49 years), the Society had to raise the money to buy the collections (now priced at £3,000) which it had rather assumed that it would have received by bequest of Sir James. (Apparently, it had no problems raising a loan for the purpose, but took 50 years to pay it off.)
This rather echoes the saga of the original purchase – on Linnaeus’ death in 1778, he left the collections to his wife (specifically excluding his son from the bequest), and negotiations between her and Sir Joseph Banks were advanced when the son, Carl the Younger, himself in turn professor of botany at Uppsala, claimed the right to keep them. It was only on his death in 1783, when the collection reverted to his mother, that Banks was approached again, and suggested to Smith over breakfast in Soho Square that his young protégé might like to buy it for £1,000.
Nearby is Georg Dionys Ehret (1807–70) – a surprisingly informal (unwigged) portrait of the botanical illustrator patronised by the duchess of Portland; and facing him, Johann Jacob Dillenius (1684–1747), the German-born professor of botany at the University of Oxford. (This rather naïve portrait leaves the viewer unsurprised that Dillenius died of apoplexy a few years after it was painted.)
We began our tour in the Meeting Room of the Society, where the President’s chair, the back upholstered in crocodile leather, sits behind a massive desk, carved in fine detail with plants including Linnaea. Among the portraits on the walls are those of Linnaeus himself, of the Hookers père et fils (Sir J.D. looking remarkable ferocious in his whiskered and bespectacled old age), of Darwin (the original painting commissioned by the Society from John Collier, who made copies, one of which is in the National Portrait Gallery), of Robert Brown and Sir John Lubbock, and of Richard Pulteney in a red velvet gown and cap (I couldn’t photograph it because of reflected light on the glass, but below is the derived print). Next to Darwin is Alfred Russel Wallace, who was never painted in his own lifetime: the portrait is a recent composite based on several photographs taken in his old age.
The Linnaean collection is held in a fireproof room, effectively a huge safe with a mighty steel door by the estimable Chubb and Co. There is just enough room inside for a small party to shuffle round the two central tables. The walls are lined with shelves: from waist height up are the books from Linnaeus’s library.
Below are cases containing the shells, insects (from tiny moths to enormous, iridescent horned beetles), fish (one complete side of the skin, with or without the backbone, adhering to the mounting paper through its own glueyness) and of course the herbarium specimens. (Linnaeus originally had a large collection of geological samples, but Smith was not interested in these, and they were sold off – some possibly to the British Museum: our guide speculated that they may lie undiscovered in some basement below the Natural History Museum …)
We were shown a first edition of the Systema Naturae (1735): a very large-format book printed in the Netherlands, and the first manifestation of Linnaeus’s sexual system for classifying plants, as well as his binomial conventions. It is a surprisingly short book of eleven pages, tabular in layout, and demonstrating his hierarchical view of the animal, vegetable and mineral worlds. (There is a small section called ‘Paradoxa’ in which things like the phoenix, the hydra and the unicorn are listed, as possible but as yet uncategorised organisms.) Later editions were printed after his return to Sweden, in a much smaller format, but with more and more specimens in each successive version (the twelfth edition of 1766 to 1768 was 2,400 pages long).
Linnaeus had copies of his books bound up with interleaved sheets on which he made notes, additions and corrections, for use in the next edition.
We also saw one of his manuscript works: an account of a trip to the Swedish island of Gotland, mostly compiled by the students (or ‘Apostles’) who accompanied the great man in his government-sponsored visits to various parts of the country in order to report back on their current use and agricultural potential. Among the charms of the record are sketches of buildings (and the walls of Visby, the major town on the island), of runic crosses (with transcriptions of the runes, useful to archaeologists, as the originals have become worn and less legible with time), and of a cunning net with which to capture basking seals.
The herbarium specimens, still kept in paper sheets, folded, and strengthened with a fine cotton material which turns out to come from recycled flour sacks, are labelled on the outside and kept in stacks tied together with string – basic, but still effective. The whole herbarium (along with the shells, insects and fish) has been digitised, and all the sheets can be seen on the Society’s website – just look at the preserved colours of the Delphinium longiflorum online.
We were show the type-specimen of Linnaea borealis (the name of this modest plant was first applied by the Leiden botanist Gronovius, in Linnaeus’s honour, and possibly at his prompting …).
After this stunning display, we were taken up the stairs to the Library, past more notables, including Aylmer Bourke Lambert and and his mentor Henry Seymer (a portrait donated to the Society by Lambert).
Inside the Library itself, the famous portrait of the elderly but still energy-packed Banks faces (across the considerable distance of two book-lined and galleried rooms) his fellow botanist and librarian Daniel Solander. But, exciting though this space was, it was the packed, rather claustrophobic fireproof room, with the simply wrapped packs of herbarium specimens prepared and annotated by Linnaeus himself, which made the really deep impression.