The botanist and secret scientist
Lady Emma Bennet was an 18th-century aristocrat and plant lover whose collection of botanical paintings is a jewel of the Kew Gardens archives. Despite great efforts to preserve her collection, little was actually known about the botanist and esoteric scientist until a historian started digging.
In 1932 several boxes were delivered to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, London, having been bought from a castle property at auction.
They contained 648 watercolors of plants and flowers collected some 130 years earlier by Lady Emma Bennet, fourth Countess of Tankerville.
The illustrations were in a delicate state, the flexible parchment on which they were painted threatened to detach from the rigid paper to which they were attached.
Conservationists did what they could to conserve them, placing them in the gardens’ storage rooms, where they must be kept at a constant temperature of between 14°C and 18°C to avoid further cracking and curling.
Kew knew the paintings were special and needed to be preserved for further research, but it wasn’t until 2019, when a mature history student from Northumberland visited them, that their mysteries began to be revealed.
June Watson, now 75 and doing a PhD on the forgotten women of 18th-century science, met Lady Emma while writing a book about her own family history.
For around 200 years, June’s family were the stewards of the Aubrey family and their home at Dorton House in Buckinghamshire.
Lady Emma’s sister Mary married into the Aubrey family, which brought her to the attention of June.
Lady Emma was born in 1752 and after the early deaths of her parents, she and Mary were raised on a country estate in Surrey and a town square in London by her wealthy uncle George Colebrook, a banker and chairman of the East India Company.
At the age of 19 she married Charles Bennet, fourth Earl of Tankerville and proprietor of Chillingham Castle in Northumberland, a prominent MP and shell collector who later became one of the men who wrote the Rules of Cricket.
It was an arranged marriage, but there was great love and admiration between the two, June said, which is perhaps evidenced by their 11 children born over a 16-year span.
It was the Age of Enlightenment when explorers traveled the world collecting rare and exotic plant species to admire and monetize.
Doctors wanted new medicines, clothing manufacturers wanted new materials, and food and beverage companies wanted new ingredients.
Carl Linnaeus developed the ultimate classification system used to categorize all plants, and collectors like Francis Musson were commissioned to scour the globe for fascinating new cultivars.
Lady Emma was one of those who caught the plant bugs and was a friend of Joseph Banks, the naturalist known to have taken part in James Cook’s Endeavor voyage to South America and Australia.
Banks, who bought and lived in the Soho Square house where Lady Emma grew up as a child, was impressed by her passion and skill and named an orchid after her after being the first person to manage it in England to successfully flower.
The Bennetts lived mainly at Walton House on the banks of the River Thames in Surrey, and it was there that Lady Emma and her chief gardener, William Richardson, experimented with the cultivation of new and exotic plants in the estate’s greenhouses
But while plant collecting was viewed as a “gentile and useful” pastime for wealthy and educated women, according to Lynn Parker, Kew’s curator of illustrations and artifacts, the actual science of botany was not something they were encouraged to engage in with women unable to attend university or join the Royal Society.
Lady Emma’s paintings are exquisite in their detail, but what elevates them from works of art to botanical importance are the notes Lady Tankerville made in the edges and on the back, June said.
They are scientifically oriented and describe the various classifications of plants, growing conditions, history and their own observations.
Lynn agrees, adding, “At first glance, she thought of collecting flowers as a respectable pastime, but she’s also clearly interested in the science of such as where they come from and their anatomy.”
In 1811, Lady Emma moved to Madeira, the Portuguese island off the coast of North Africa, on doctor’s orders after two of her children fell ill with consumption.
Madeira was a busy trading port, an important meeting point on the sailing routes between America and India, and its mild climate was considered good for the health of the sick.
During her 18-month stay, Emma painted 21 pictures of the island’s plants, which were added to the collection of plants she commissioned.
They form the basis of an exhibition currently on display at Northumberland County Council’s County Hall in Morpeth, where June will be speaking on 21st and 27th March.
June 75 spent months rifling through 60 large boxes, each containing 300 letters and documents detailing the intricate labors of the Tankerville dynasty, which have been preserved in Northumberland County Council’s Woodhorn Archives in Ashington, having been donated by the family had been.
She had to get permission from Lady Emma’s descendants to look through the boxes and what she found painted the picture of Lady Emma’s life.
She had exchanged letters with George Washington and other notable citizens of the 18th and 19th centuries whom she could call friends and acquaintances before she died in 1836 at the age of 84.
“She was a remarkable woman who deserves to be recognized as a major botanist, artist and collector of exotic plants,” June said, adding, “She captured the spirit of women’s intellectual engagement with natural history of the time, its important Legacies for botany disappeared from the record.”
Karen Lounton, interim head of service at Northumberland County Council, said June’s work in discovering and telling Lady Emma’s story has been exceptional.
“[Emma] was a talented woman who didn’t get the recognition she deserved,” Karen said, adding, “The work that June has done has come a long way to ensure that [Emma] has its moment in the sun and its place in history.”
Lady Emma’s collection is one of the largest private collections in the archives at Kew, matched only by more official and professional collections such as that of William Roxburgh on the plants in the Calcutta Botanical Gardens, where he was Superintendent.
But Lady Emma received no official recognition for her work with women who were not allowed to join the Royal Society, the body most likely to reward scientific endeavors like hers.
“It’s a beautiful collection and one of our jewels,” Ms Parker said of the Tankerville paintings, but she added that more needs to be known about the “obscure but very important figure” she assembled.
“She’s definitely not getting the recognition she deserves.”
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