The secret botanist and scientist

Lady Emma Bennet, painted with two of her 11 children, lived 1752–1836

Lady Emma Bennet was an 18th century aristocrat and plant enthusiast whose collection of botanical paintings is a gem in the archives of Kew Gardens. Despite extensive efforts to preserve her collection, little was known about the secret botanist and scientist until a historian began researching it.

In 1932 several crates were delivered to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, London, after being purchased at auction during a castle sale.

They contained 648 watercolors of plants and flowers amassed some 130 years earlier by Lady Emma Bennet, the fourth Countess of Tankerville.

The illustrations were in a delicate state, the soft vellum on which they were painted being in danger of detaching from the stiff paper on which they had been affixed.

Two paintings by Lady Emma

Lady Emma Bennet has amassed 648 images from her collection of beloved plants, some of which she painted herself

Conservationists have done what they can to preserve them, placing them in garden storage where they must be kept at a constant temperature of between 14°C and 18°C ​​to prevent further cracking. and ripples.

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, that their secrets began to come to light.

June Watson, now 75 and preparing a doctorate on forgotten women of 18th-century science, met Lady Emma while she was writing a book about her own family history.

June Watson

June Watson researched Lady Emma Bennet

For around 200 years June’s family were 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 June’s attention.

Lady Emma was born in 1752 and after the untimely death of her parents, she and Mary were brought up on a country estate in Surrey and a town square in London by their wealthy uncle George Colebrook, a banker and chairman of the Company. of the East Indies.

At the age of 19 she was married to Charles Bennet, the fourth Earl of Tankerville and owner of Chillingham Castle in Northumberland, a prominent MP and shell collector who later became one of the men who wrote the rules cricket.

A number of old books displayed on desks with shelves holding other volumes beyond

The Tankerville Collection is housed at the Royal Botanic Gardens along with many other rare and valuable books and documents

It was an arranged marriage, but there was a lot of love and admiration between the two, June said, as evidenced perhaps 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 be both amazed and monetized.

Doctors wanted new drugs, clothing makers new materials, and food and beverage makers new ingredients.

Close up of a painting of yellow fruits next to green leaves and a white flower with handwritten notes below

Lady Emma took notes to accompany her precise illustrations

Carl Linnaeus devised the ultimate classification system by which all plants were categorized and collectors such as Francis Musson were tasked with searching the world for intriguing new varieties.

Lady Emma was one of those who caught the plant collecting bug and was a friend of Joseph Banks, the naturalist who joined James Cook’s Endeavor voyage to South America and Australia.

Banks, who bought and lived in the Soho Square house Lady Emma grew up in as a child, was impressed by her passion and talent and named an orchid after her after she became the first person to succeed in making it flourish in England.

A painting of an orchid

Joseph Banks named this orchid after Lady Emma because she was the first person to successfully make it bloom in England

The Bennetts lived primarily at Walton House on the bank of the River Thames in Surrey, and it was here that Lady Emma and her head gardener William Richardson experimented with growing new and exotic plants in the estate’s greenhouses.

But while plant collecting was seen as a “kind and useful” pastime for wealthy, well-educated women, according to Lynn Parker, Kew’s Artwork and Artifacts curator, the science of botany wasn’t something that they were encouraged to pursue with the women. unable to go to 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 significance are the notations Lady Tankerville made on the margins and on the spine, June said.

They are scientific in scope, detailing the various classifications of plants, growing conditions, history and his own observations.

Close-up painting of green leaves and vines

The illustrations are painstakingly detailed and Lady Bennet has added scientific notes

Lynn agrees, adding, “On the face of it, she collects flowers, which was considered a respectable hobby, but she’s also clearly interested in the science of them, such as their origin and anatomy.”

In 1811, Lady Emma moved to Madeira, the Portuguese island off the coast of North Africa, on the orders of a doctor after two of her children fell ill from consumption.

Madeira was a bustling trading port, a key meeting point on the sea routes between the Americas and India, and its mild climate was considered good for the health of the sick.

During her 18 month stay, Emma painted 21 paintings of the plants on the island which were added to the collection of those she had commissioned of her own plants.

They form the basis of an exhibition currently on display at Northumberland County Council’s County Hall in Morpeth and where June will lecture on 21 and 27 March.

A woman shows pictures of plants while another woman watches

Karen Lounton of Northumberland County Council praised the work of June Watson

June, 75, spent months sifting through 60 large boxes each containing 300 letters and documents detailing the intricate workings of the Tankerville dynasty held in Northumberland County Council’s Woodhorn Archives in Ashington after being donated by the family.

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 her death in 1836 at the age of 84.

A painting of a cactus with a large white and pink flower on its top

Lady Emma collected plants from around the world

“She was a remarkable woman who deserves to be recognized as an important botanist, artist and collector of exotic plants,” said June, adding, “She captured the spirit of women’s intellectual engagement with history. nature of the period whose important botanical heritage has disappeared. folder.”

Karen Lounton, acting head of department at Northumberland County Council, said June’s work to uncover and tell Lady Emma’s story had been extraordinary.

“[Emma] was a talented woman who didn’t get the credit she deserved,” Karen said, adding, “The work June did went a long way in securing [Emma] has its moment in the sun and its place in history.”

A woman works on a laptop

June lectures at County Hall in Morpeth on Lady Emma on March 21 and 27

Lady Emma’s collection is one of the largest private collections in the Kew Archives, only bettered in size by more official and professional collections such as that amassed by William Roxburgh of plants in the Calcutta Botanic Gardens where he was superintendent.

But Lady Emma received no official recognition for her work with women not allowed to join the Royal Society, the body most likely to reward scientific endeavors like hers.

“It’s a great collection to have and it’s one of our gems,” Ms Parker said of the Tankerville paintings, but added that more needs to be known about the “obscure but very important” which constituted it.

“She’s definitely not getting the recognition she deserves.”

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