William Daniell’s ‘The European Factories, Canton’ (1806) © Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
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Think of a famous plant hunter associated with botanising in China, and names such as Robert Fortune, Ernest Wilson or George Forrest might come to mind. Were the vicissitudes of 18th-century living somewhat kinder, perhaps we would be celebrating a great name from an even earlier era, that of John Bradby Blake.

Bradby Blake died on November 16 1773 at the age of just 28 in Canton (now Guangzhou), China. Throughout his brief career in China he was industrious, devoting his spare time to the study of native plants and leaving behind a legacy of documents and botanical art. What Bradby Blake compiled provides a snapshot of a period when westerners were just beginning to gain access to that country’s extraordinary native flora. It has taken 250 years for significance of Bradby Blake’s work, and all-too-brief life, to be fully appreciated.

Bradby Blake’s papers consist of four folio volumes of 190 watercolour and gouache illustrations, bound notes and manuscripts including highly detailed descriptions of Chinese plants. There are lists of seeds sent back to England and a unique Chinese to English vocabulary. The archive was acquired in May 1963 by Paul and Bunny Mellon and housed in the library they built next to their home at Oak Spring, North Virginia.

The Mellons were known for their extensive art collection as well as philanthropy. Bunny gained a reputation as a horticulturalist and designer, famously laying out the White House Rose Garden for John F Kennedy. The Mellons also built up a substantial collection of books on gardening, botanical art and related sciences, including the Bradby Blake papers. Bunny died in 2014 at the age of 103, precipitating the initiation of the Oak Spring Garden Foundation.

According to Sir Peter Crane, inaugural president of the foundation, “the Mellons would have understood some of the significance of the Bradby Blake archive, but not really known who he was”. The foundation site consists of the Mellons’ former home, 700 acres of grounds and garden and the library, housing 16,000 objects. Crane describes part of his job as “unearthing the treasures” on the library’s extensive shelves, such as Bradby Blake’s papers.

Illustration by a Chinese artist in collaboration with Bradby Blake c1770 © Oak Spring Garden Foundation

Crane had come across Bradby Blake while researching his book Ginkgo: The Tree That Time Forgot. Then he was dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University, having previously been the director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Assuming his role in 2016, Crane’s access to the Bradby Blake archive led to a special edition of Curtis’s Botanical Magazine that was published in December. Founded in 1787, Curtis’s is the longest-running botanical publication in the world, established by the botanist William Curtis and it puts Bradby Blake firmly on the global map.

Illustration by a Chinese artist in collaboration with Bradby Blake c1770 © Oak Spring Garden Foundation

Together with Jordan Goodman, honorary research associate in the department of science and technology at University College London, Crane assembled a team of experts to write about aspects of the archive and Bradby Blake’s life.

Born in London in 1745, Bradby Blake was the son of a sea captain for the East India Company, John Blake. Blake Snr was an entrepreneurial man and the family moved into a comfortable and large house on Parliament Street, Westminster, in 1763.

Illustration by a Chinese artist in collaboration with Bradby Blake c1770 © Oak Spring Garden Foundation

Bradby Blake received a classical education at Westminster School, heavy on bible reading but lacking in any botanical education. He may have been self-taught, as a record of the British Museum in 1761 states that a “Mr Blake” was admitted for a six-month period to the reading room. In 1767 he became a supercargo (merchant) for the East India Company, and undertook a six-month voyage to Canton.

Bradby Blake’s arrival in China came at a time when the world was opening up to trade and exploration. Traders and explorers were on the lookout for valuable commodities, in particular plants — not least tea, the highly prized crop that originated in south-west China.

Canton in the 1700s was a trading enclave, one of the few places where western merchants could do business. The rest of China remained enigmatically closed to everyone but a smattering of Jesuit missionaries. Trade was strictly regulated under the Co-Hong guild of merchants, and the Hongs held responsibilities not just for trade but also taxation and policing.

Portrait of Bradby Blake, probably by Simon Beauvais © Oak Spring Garden Foundation

Bradby Blake returned to London at the end of his first season of trading and after a two-month sojourn travelled back to Canton. This time, he was returning as a resident supercargo, entitled to stay in Macau after the trading season ended, rather than having to travel to England. That must have provided a shred of comfort; it took a gruelling nine months for him to return to Canton from London.

He decided to dedicate his free time to researching the natural history of China, seeking out plants “which may prove of benefit in my native country”. It appears his intention was to send back to his father and another trader, John Ellis, seeds and plants of commercial value. Among the archive in the Mellon library are details and drawings of boxes specially designed for this purpose. The scheme attracted some success; the tallow tree (Triadica sebifera) was successfully introduced to Jamaica, and Cochin-China rice grown in South Carolina.

Drawing of the garden of a wealthy Chinese merchant by unknown artist, Guangzhou, 1800–1805 © The British Library/Bridgeman Images

Bradby Blake received gifts of seeds from others in Canton, and collected from the plants he grew in his own garden there. He made observations of the material he cultivated, noting the conditions in which particular species came into flower. He had his own library of botanical and natural history books to consult, including Linnaeus’s Genera Plantarum and the almost contemporary work, A Voyage to China (1771), by a student of Linnaeus, Peter Osbeck.

In addition to the collection and distribution of live plants and seed, Bradby Blake determined to “form a Complete Chinensis of drawings copied from Nature”. He resolved to have illustrated every aspect of the plant from flower to seed, along with exhaustive notes on “Uses, Virtues, Culture, Seasons, Parts of Fructification, (and) when in bloom”. It was an ambitious undertaking that no westerner had previously attempted.

When the trading season in Canton concluded, Bradby Blake moved out to Macau. This gave him the time to make some drawings himself but also employing a Chinese artist, Mauk-Sow-U, of whom little is known. Canton was well populated with artists producing souvenir art for traders, but the quality of the work in the archive is far superior.

Portrait of Wang-y-Tong by Joshua Reynolds, 1776 © National Trust Images/Horst Kolo

Crane stresses that “At the moment we have no images — and perhaps there were none — that Bradby Blake actually did himself. He commissioned the paintings and brought knowledge of what needed to be illustrated — botanical details and the plants he was interested in.”

While Mauk-Sow-U and, possibly, other artists toiled away, Bradby Blake relied on two sets of Chinese herbalists in order to correctly identify the plants being portrayed. The works in the archive are annotated not only by Bradby Blake, but also Wang-y-Tong, who is believed to have acted as both a go-between and translator. Bradby Blake also corresponded with the Swedish naturalist Daniel Solander, and his responses and feedback also feature in the archive.

Bradby Blake’s obituary attributes his death to complications brought on by gallstones. His collaborator, Wang-y-Tong, collected up his papers and returned them to his father in London, where they remained a closely kept family treasure. One can only speculate on how highly Bradby Blake would be considered today had he finished his Complete Chinensis.

Matthew Wilson is a garden and landscape designer and horticultural consultant

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