by Julie Davies
When we talk about plants and healing, we usually think about using herbs as medicine through remedies, creams or food. Sometimes the conversation turns to the health benefits of gardening, a pursuit reportedly as good for the mind, heart and soul as it is for the body. For a seventeenth century duchess in her twilight years, gardening was all of these things, encapsulated in the twelve volume herbarium she produced as a repository of a lifetime of learning and passion.
The herbarium created by Mary Somerset, Duchess of Beaufort (1630-1715), preserved dried samples of hundreds of plants from her botanical collection. It is now housed at the Natural History Museum in London. A keen gardener from a young age, Somerset began collecting exotic plants in the 1670s, in the search for a cure for her melancholy disposition. However, her interest in botany, the identification, classification and study of plants, grew quickly. Over the next forty years, she amassed thousands of specimens from around the world. In 1696 she received one shipment from Barbados that included hundreds of seeds, leaves, cuttings, saplings, and even several large trees. Just one of the eleven tubs in this shipment contained a fern tree, seven water common trees, and one white mangrove tree.
Somerset grew, studied and catalogued her collection in consultation with several well-known botanists including Sir Hans Sloane, William Sherard and John Ray. Yet, botany was more than a rational exercise for her. The creation of her herbarium, in particular, was fuelled by a range of emotions including grief, joy and wonder.
The end of the seventeenth century was a tragic time for Somerset. She lost her daughter Elizabeth Seymour, the last living child from her first marriage, in 1697. Then in 1698 she lost her son Charles in a coach accident. Meanwhile, her husband Henry, Duke of Beaufort, was struggling with poor health through these ordeals and passed away shortly after in 1700. It is little wonder that Somerset was keenly feeling her own mortality during this time and writing of her struggles ‘to master the weakness of old age’.
Yet Somerset found great comfort in her plants. She also writes of keeping busy with her ‘dried plants’ despite poor health and how when she ‘get[s] into storys of plants’ she knows ‘not how to get out’. These ‘storys’ take the form of botanical notes describing the plants in her collection, which books she used to identify them, the conditions under which her specimens thrived or struggled, and, of course, the herbarium itself.
Botany was Somerset’s escape, a distraction from grief and the discomforts of age just as much as it was an intellectual pursuit. This scientific intent is foremost in several herbarium pages which include the flowers, fruit, roots and dissections of plant specimens. Other pages displayed multiple varieties of more well known plants like tulips and auricula. These were all clearly designed to enable botanical identification and classification.However, far from being an intellectual pursuit which muted or divorced her from her emotional life, Somerset’s herbarium refocused her mind on more positive and pleasurable parts of life.
Somerset took great pride in this part of the work. She boasted to Sloan how ‘very glad’ she was that she couldn’t identify several of the plants from the West Indies in her books. She then included several such specimens in the smaller two volume herbarium that she made as a gift for him.
The pleasure that Somerset took in the drying process is also manifest in the pages of the herbarium. Unannotated dragonflies and other insects have been preserved and incorporated into several of the pages. The insects seem to have been incorporated primarily to enhance the aesthetic appeal of the page. A letter to Sloane confirms that some flowers were also added ‘to embellish the book’ confirming Somerset’s intention to produce volumes that were aesthetically pleasing and enjoyed as well as studied. This aspect of the herbarium allowed Somerset to artistically express the wonder and excitement that plants such as this spectacularly preserved Aeonium inspired in her.
Somerset spread this joy by sharing her garden with visitors and showcasing for them the many wonders of Nature. Jacob Bobart, for example, credits Somerset with making ‘appeare the transcendent wealth of the Vegetable Kingdome’. Somerset’s collection of dried plants preserved these curiosities and extended the wonder of that so called ‘Paradise of a Garden’ beyond its boundaries in many ways. In a practical sense, the drying process allowed her to pass on specimens, as in the volumes gifted to Sloane. But even more poignantly, by preserving the plants that she had so attentively raised in the greenhouse, which she called her ‘Infirmary’, Somerset overcame both their mortality and her own.
Unless indicated otherwise, quotes are from documents contained in:-
British Library, Sloane MS 3343
British Library, Sloane MS 4061
Douglas Chambers, ‘“Storys of Plants”: The Assembling of Mary Capel Somerset’s Botanical Collection at Badminton’, Journal of the History of Collections 9, no. 1 (1997): 49–60.
Julie Davies, ‘Botanizing at Badminton House: The Botanical Pursuits of Mary Somerset, First Duchess of Beaufort’, in Domesticity in the Making of Modern Science (Springer, 2016), 19–40.
Otniel E. Dror et al., ‘An Introduction to History of Science and the Emotions’, Osiris 31 (2016):1-18.
Mark Laird, A Natural History of English Gardening, 1650-1800 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015).
Jennifer Munroe, ‘“My Innocent Diversion of Gardening”: Mary Somerset’s Plants’, Renaissance Studies 25, no. 1 (2011): 111–123.