Title: Early New Zealand Botanical Art

Author: F. Bruce Sampson

Publication details: Reed Methuen, 1985, Auckland

Digital publication kindly authorised by: F. Bruce Sampson

Part of: New Zealand Texts Collection

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Early New Zealand Botanical Art

William Jackson Hooker

William Jackson Hooker

William Hooker, the son of a merchant's clerk, was born in Norwich on 6 July 1785. He inherited a love of plants and books from his father and his mother's artistic abilities. While still a youth he became interested in insects, birds and plants. At the age of twenty he became known in natural history circles, when he discovered for the first time in Britain a curious moss, Buxbaumia aphylla. It was suggested that he show it to Dawson Turner, a page 69 Yarmouth banker and botanist, whose protégé he became. A year later he was, on Turner's sponsorship, elected a fellow of the Linnean Society, almost the youngest ever admitted. In 1806, armed with introductions from Dawson Turner and others, he went to London and met Sir Joseph Banks. In those days jobs for naturalists depended largely on the patronage of prominent people, and Banks had a high reputation for being able to sum people up and recommend "the right person for the right job". William Hooker was kindly received by Banks, who was very impressed with his knowledge and enthusiasm. Sir Joseph Banks had a large library and herbarium, which he made freely available to others. By the time William Hooker met him, Banks had become botanical and horticultural adviser to the Royal Gardens at Kew.

The visit with Banks inspired William Hooker to become a botanist. He decided to write a book on a group of liverworts (plants on a similar evolutionary level to mosses, though not as well known to the layperson), the British Jungermanniae. William had, on reaching twenty-one, come into an inheritance from his maternal grandfather and could devote himself full-time to botanical interests. Progress on the British Jungermanniae was slow. It eventually appeared in parts at six-monthly intervals, the first in 1812 and the last in 1816. His son Joseph described it as "the most beautiful of all my father's works, in point of the drawing, analyses and engraving of the plates". In it 197 species (some named for the first time) were described and illustrated in colour. One reason for its delayed appearance was that Dawson Turner soon discovered what a fine artist William Hooker was. Turner was engaged in writing a history of British seaweeds {Historia Fu coruni) and whenever possible he invited William to be a house guest and make drawings for his book. Of the 258 plates in the four volumes of Turner's Historia Fucorum, 234 were by Hooker. Mea Allan, in her delightful, scholarly and very readable book The Hookers of Kew (1967), writes: "Looking at William Hooker's paintings of these seaweeds it is hardly believable that they are not actual specimens glued on the pages. Instinctively one touches them, to feel the texture of the once-live plant! So real they are, description is hardly necessary." Yet Turner made no acknowledgement of Hooker's assistance. Only the small inscription "W.J. H. Esqr. delt'." indicates his involvement.

William's visits to the Turner household in Yarmouth did have their rewards, for in June 1815, aged twenty-nine, he married Dawson Turner's eldest daughter, Maria, when she was sixteen. Even before William Hooker married his daughter, Dawson Turner treated him like a son. This had its disadvantages, for his financial advice to William led to several disasters. William was anxious to explore the plants of distant lands, but Dawson Turner actively discouraged this, partly, it seems, to avoid losing the services of such a talented artist. Hooker had nevertheless managed, in 1809, through the offices of Sir Joseph Banks, to take part in an expedition to Iceland on the Margaret and Anne. It was an exciting trip, complete with page 70 a bloodless revolution in Iceland, and near the start of the return voyage the Margaret and Anne (with its holds packed with flammable tallow) caught fire. Shortly before the powder magazine blew up, the passengers and crew were rescued by another vessel, the Orion. William's botanical collections were destroyed, but his journal was saved and this Journal of a Tour in Iceland was published in 1811 (second edition, 1813).

Ten months after their marriage, Maria and William's first son, William Dawson Hooker, was born. A little over a year later (30 June 1817), Joseph Dalton Hooker arrived. By then there were difficult economic times in England, and the brewery in which his father-in-law persuaded William to invest was losing money. William continued with his botanical work and two books on mosses appeared: Muscologia Britannica (1818), with Dr Thomas Taylor of Dublin as co-author, and the two-volume Musci Exotici (1818, 1820). The latter work included descriptions of New Zealand mosses that had been collected by Archibald Menzies at Dusky Bay during George Vancouver's voyage in 1791. Vancouver, who had been on Cook's second voyage, was in command of the Discovery, and Menzies was the ship's surgeon. A second vessel, the Chatham, was under the charge of Captain Broughton.

After the birth of a third child, Maria, in 1819, William began looking for a professional botanical position. With help in the background from Banks and others, he was appointed by the Crown to the chair of botany at Glasgow University in February 1820. In those days botany was regarded as an ancillary subject to medicine, and medicinal plants were prominently featured in the courses. William Hooker's duties included the supervision of the Glasgow Botanic Gardens. He became a brilliant lecturer, who attracted an increasing number of students. His blackboard sketches and coloured charts, an innovation in those days, were greatly admired. Even officers from a barracks three miles away began to attend his lectures. He was a keen walker and could cover sixty miles in a day, and he initiated vigorous botanical excursions for his students.

During his stay in Glasgow the number of plants in the Botanic Gardens more than doubled. His varied duties did not prevent William from building up his herbarium (which eventually comprised 1,000,000 specimens — the largest in the world), his library and extending his research. He prepared a new edition of Curtis's Flora Londinensis (1817-28), wrote a flora of Scotland, Flora Scotica (1821), and his The British Flora ran to four editions between 1830 and 1838. He became editor of Curtis's Botanical Magazine in 1826 and was its illustrator too until Walter Fitch began as artist in 1834. In 1836 William Hooker was knighted for his services to botany. During his time at Glasgow, Sir William began an intensive study of ferns. He wrote the two-volume Icones Filicum (1831) with Dr Robert Greville (1794-1866), a well-known botanist of his day, who provided the illustrations. This was available in coloured or uncoloured versions and contained an account of New Zealand plants collected by page 71 Menzies from Dusky Bay during Vancouver's voyage of 1791. Between 1838 and 1842 the twelve-part Genera Filicum appeared, with hand-coloured lithographs based on watercolours by Francis Bauer (see chapter V). Another large work, Species Filicum, "being descriptions of the known ferns, particularly of such as exist in the author's herbarium", was published in five volumes (1846-64), with uncoloured lithographs by Walter Fitch. Hooker went on to write many more books on ferns.

Sir William Hooker's greatest long-term ambition was finally realised in 1841 when he became director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. It had taken many years of delicate negotiating by Banks (who died in 1820, the year in which William Hooker moved to Glasgow) and other prominent men before the gardens were, in effect, nationalised in 1840, when their control passed from "the Board of Green Cloth to the Commissioners of Woods and Forests". Kew Gardens were in poor condition when Hooker arrived. William Hooker's achievements at Kew have been chronicled in many publications and are well summarised in Royal Botanic Gardens KewGardens for Science and Pleasure (edited by F. Nigel Hepper, 1982), which contains excellent illustrations. A measure of the increasing popularity of Kew was shown in the number of visitors. In Hooker's first year as director there were 9,000, and by 1865, the year he died, there were 500,000.

Sir William Hooker published a number of botanical journals. Some were short-lived, for example, London Journal of Botany (Hooker's London Journal of Botany), 1844-8, but one he founded, Icones Plantarum (1837), which from 1867 onwards was called Hooker's Icones Plantarum, is still being published at Kew. This journal began with the subtitle "or figures with brief descriptive characters and remarks, of new or rare plants, selected from the author's herbarium". It has much in common with Curtis's Botanical Magazine, and both journals shared editors (for example, the Hookers, Sir William Thiselton-Dyer, Sir David Prain) and artists (for example, Walter Fitch, Matilda Smith, Stella Ross-Craig, Margaret Stones). Unlike Curtis's Botanical Magazine, the plates are uncoloured. A number of New Zealand plants have been illustrated in Icones Plantarum. One of the earliest to appear was Fuchsia procumbens, the creeping fuchsia (volume 5, 1842). It has been estimated that of the 8,000 or so plates William Hooker had published, 1,800 were based on his own drawings.