Fruit Forum

Tradescants Orchard Paintings

Photo - see caption

The well known, early seventeenth century paintings of fruits, usually called 'Tradescants' Orchard' have all been reproduced and are now available as a book, here reviewed by Joan Morgan.

The fruit paintings known as ‘Tradescants Orchard’ are familiar to us as decorative art reproduced on post-cards and so on by the Bodleian Library at Oxford, where these nearly four hundred year old water-colours are kept. Now, under this same title, all sixty-six paintings are published by the Bodleian in a handsome book, together with a commentary by Barrie Juniper, Emeritus Reader in Plant Sciences, and Hanneke Grootenboer, Lecturer in the History of Art, at the University of Oxford.

Each painting illustrates one named variety of fruit, drawn with its leaves on a branch. Plums are the most numerous with twenty-three varieties in all their colours – golden, opalescent, red and blue-black – and in rounded to elongated oval shapes. Peaches, twelve in number, leap out from the pages, large, blushed and plump, together with five nectarines. Scarlet cherries dangle from their branches – ten varieties in all including one white and one black cherry. There are four pears and four grapes, plus two apricots, an apple, quince, nut and also a strawberry and gooseberry. The name of the variety and the date, but not the year, on which it ripened is written on each plate. On many plates, the artist has incorporated small whimsical drawings of insects, birds, frogs and a squirrel, in the style of contemporary still life paintings.

The paintings give an idea of the size and colour of each variety of fruit, but in a simplistic form, not in fine detail and naïve when compared with the work of botanic artists of this time and earlier. Nonetheless, these endearing and vividly colourful images convey a good impression of the fruits making it possible to distinguish one variety from another, at least for some of them; the leaves however are standardised images with no distinction between the varieties.

Very little is known for certain about these paintings, but there are clues, which Juniper and Grootenboer rigorously pursue. They look for answers to the many questions concerning the origin and purpose of the paintings and explore their background and the landmarks in their story. The paintings were first recorded in 1697 under the name ‘A Book of Fruit Trees drawn in Colours about the year 1640’, and in the form in which they survive today, as a leather bound volume bearing the coat of arms of Elias Ashmole on the spine and clasp. Ashmole supplied a contents page for the paintings and arranged to have them bound, or rather rebound, probably around 1680.

Ashmole was a wealthy man, a scholar and avid, eclectic collector, who in 1677 donated a ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ to the University of Oxford. To house this remarkable collection a new building was erected that became the Ashmolean Museum and to which later Ashmole gave the volume of paintings. In 1860 the paintings, as part of the Museum’s books and manuscript collection, were transferred to the Bodleian. Their description as ‘The Tradescants’ Orchard’ probably first appeared in a catalogue of the Ashmolean’s collection in 1845, but there are much earlier associations with the Tradescants. Not the least of these connections was Ashmole’s gift of ‘rarities’, the ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’, which had belonged to the Tradescant family.

John Tradescant and his son, also John, were gardeners to the aristocracy, rising to become royal gardeners to Charles I. At the same time as taking care of these duties they were plant hunters, travelling abroad and bringing home all kinds of new plants, which ranged from an Algerian apricot and probably the Tradescant cherry to many now familiar garden plants, such as the American Virginia creeper and tulip tree. The Tradescants established a nursery at Lambeth in South London, where, as well as propagating and selling plants, they built up a collection of natural history specimens, coins, works of art and other objects to fill their ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’, in essence an infant museum, known affectionately as the ‘Ark’ and open to paying visitors.

Ashmole and Tradescant the younger were close friends. Ashmole paid for the inventory of the ‘Ark’s’ treasures to be compiled and published in 1656. Possibly in return, he was promised its contents. Then relations soured between the two families. Tradescant did not bequeath the ‘Ark’ to Ashmole, or acknowledge an agreement to do so in his will. Ashmole zealously pursued his claim in the law courts, which ruled that his right to the collection was valid, but Tradescant’s widow only relinquished them just before her death. Investigations into Ashmole’s unrelenting pursuit of the Tradescants’ collection shed no more light on the provenance of the paintings, although he appears to have kept them in his possession and valued them for a number of years. On the other hand, there are further links to the Tradescants on the plates themselves.

The note written on the painting of the Amber plum that reads – ‘which ‘J.T. I take it brought out of France and groueth at Hatfield’ - presumably refers to John Tradescant and Hatfield House, where Tradescant the elder was gardener in chief to Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury, Secretary of State to Queen Elizabeth I and James I’s spymaster. However, there is nothing in the Hatfield archives referring to these paintings or anything to support the idea that the paintings were of fruit trees planted at Hatfield. Analysis of the handwriting style on the plates and the paper places them both in the early seventeenth century, but none of the handwriting matches that of either Tradescant. Even so, as Juniper and Grootenboer suggest, the family could still have owned the paintings. But kept them in a private collection, as they were not among the contents of the ‘Ark’, at least not in 1656 when the inventory was made.

Whether the Tradescants commissioned the paintings, or ever owned them, or who the artist might have been remain unresolved and the further the authors probed the more questions emerged. It seems probable that some of the paintings making up the original portfolio may have been lost, since the selection painted by the artist was not typical of the contents of a garden or orchard in the early seventeenth century. Apples would have been the most planted and popular fruit, followed by pears, plums and cherries. Yet only one variety of apple is painted, whereas over fifty varieties are listed by Tradesant’s friend the herbalist John Parkinson in 1629. Parkinson mentions the names of some sixty pears, but only four are illustrated. Curiously, one plate, a much more subtle and realistic painting of a gooseberry, is by another artist and possibly yet another painter was responsible for the strawberry.

The most intriguing question raised by the authors’ research is what function these paintings may have served. They do not appear to be intended for framing and hanging on a wall, or to illustrate a book and the plates show the marks of extensive handling. Juniper and Grootenboer speculate that they served as a nurseryman’s catalogue, an illustrated guide to his stock of plants for sale.

A collection of coloured pictures would have been invaluable to a nurseryman travelling around the country, calling at country houses in search of orders. Or in the more likely scenario perhaps, the paintings were displayed to customers visiting a nursery, such as the Tradescants’ premises. Once the plates were viewed, who could have resisted the temptation to buy a tree with the prospect of these glorious, glowing fruits for your own dining table, to serve as part of the fashionable ‘fruit banquette’, a finale of fresh fruit and sugary preserved fruit sweetmeats.

Paintings commissioned as advertisements for a nurseryman’s wares may explain their simplistic nature, as compared with the exquisite, accurate detail achieved by contemporary botanic artists and the sumptuous images of still life canvases. The plates would be less expensive to produce and less precious than meticulous works by an experienced artist and, one could also argue, thus fitted to the more robust role of repeated examination as customers poured over the range of fruits for sale. But, as the authors point out, nurserymen’s catalogues from this time are no more than pamphlets with lists of names.

As far as I am aware, nothing resembling ‘Tradescants’ Orchard’ is known in connection with any of the increasing number of nurseries in business by the end of the seventeenth century, not even for the foremost one of all – Messrs London and Wise of Brompton Park in London, suppliers of the latest fruit novelties and every other plant to estates and more modest gardens across England. The notion of these paintings as promotional plant sales material is an attractive one, which if true would make them very remarkable and far ahead of their time. Another century passed before the famous, ‘Furber’s Fruits’ were issued to promote and advance the fortunes of this Kensington nursery. Often reproduced and much more sophisticated paintings, the ‘Twelve Plates with Figures of Fruit’ commissioned by Robert Furber illustrated the fruits and their varieties ripe in each month of the year, displayed in baskets and bowls, but not in print until 1732.

Fruit historians will be delighted that the paintings of ‘Tradescants’ Orchard’ are now available to study at leisure and in facsimile, life-size, format. Puzzling out the names and identities, comparing these with other lists and descriptions will give hours of pleasure. The general reader also cannot fail to be enchanted by the rich colours and endearing nature of these enigmatic paintings and fascinated by the mysteries that still surround them. I can strongly recommend The Tradescants’ Orchard: it is a beautiful book, elegantly designed with glorious pictures and a stimulating text.

Joan Morgan

The Tradescants' Orchard, The Mystery of a Seventeenth-Century Painted Fruit Book; commentary by Barrie Juniper and Hanneke Grootenboer, published 2013 by Bodleian Library, University of Oxford; pp 120, 81 colour illustrations; price £30.00.