Painting of the Great Roman Hazel Nut with a red squirrel and frog below
Painting of the Great Roman Hazel Nut with a red squirrel and frog below © Bodleian Library, University of Oxford

I have eaten some excellent pears already this autumn, wasp-free and firm-fleshed. Apples are abundant, making up for a poor crop last year. It has been an excellent season for orchard owners but the most fascinating fruits I have seen have not been sun-ripened. They have been hand-painted and bound in a fragile, leather book. They are dated to 1640 and are probably the earliest surviving display of painted English fruits. They are mysterious but very well-connected. They link up with the famous master gardener John Tradescant and the collector Elias Ashmole, the source of so much that is now in Oxford’s celebrated Ashmolean Museum. After some 150 years in Oxford’s Bodleian Library, they have been re-examined and published by experts in fruit, botanical art and bound books. Their history is clearer but by no means solved. Somehow, they seem to connect with important nurserymen, touting for custom in an England where imports, new breeding and fashion were transforming the fruits on the tables of the rich.

The paintings are watercolours, glazed over to give them more impact. Studying all 66 makes me realise how much existed in the world before Golden Delicious apples, the gas-cooled chambers of supermarkets and the standards of the modern EU. Where is the Cluster Red nectarine today, or the Queen Mother plum? In 1640, the Round Coronation peach was a shapely fruit with a rose-red flush on the upper skin. It was ripe on September 24 and on the strength of its painted picture I bet it tasted delicious. Fruit selection is not a new craze. Even in England it was rampant before the Civil War. In ancient Rome, great sharks like Pompey were concerned to have the finest new varieties of grafted fruit in their gardens.

Why does this early bundle of paintings exist? In a beautifully reproduced volume, the Bodleian Library has brought them to a wider public and enlisted some local big guns to try to sort out the puzzle. Bruce Barker-Benfield, the Bodleian’s senior curator of western manuscripts, has established that six folio pages are missing, perhaps because Ashmole later removed them and gave them away. Analysis of the inks, the types of paper and the handwriting suggests how the captions and dates of ripening came to be added beside the fruits shown. A remarkable picture of a “great peare” shows a dark monster of a fruit whose caption has been crossed out and changed from “14-ounce” to 16. Did it weigh in at this heavier weight after the first estimate? Fascinatingly, little astrological signs can be detected on some of the pictures. A cherry which ripened on June 10 has the sign for Gemini beside it. A Morocco plum which ripened on July 15 is accompanied by the sign of Mercury. Astrology was important to the pictures’ owner.

In Ireland I have seen astrological signs in the boxes at Kildare’s National Stud where the stallions cover the mares. Who is to tell us, the head groom once assured me, that the moment of conception is not related to the planet of the month? Evidently, fruit growers in the 1640s felt the same about their fruiting plums and gooseberry bushes. Ashmole was the son of a simple saddler and also mated well. He married money and class and honoured Gemini as his birth sign. Mercury became the sign of his personal crest. He even called himself Mercurius Anglicus. Signs in this fruit book relate to this self-made man’s interest in the stars.

Two Oxford experts, Barrie Juniper, a historian of fruits, and Hanneke Grootenboer, a historian of 17th century art, have tried to place the paintings, their usage and their artist. Of course, there is an earlier history of illustrated fruits, whether in woodcuts in books or in the composite fruit scenes of master oil painters, especially Dutch ones. In the 1590s a doctor in Leiden used a “winter garden” of watercolours to instruct his pupils in medicinal plants when the weather prevented them from seeing them in green growth. These scientific watercolours now survive in Krakow, Poland, but the Ashmole paintings are decidedly different. They are painted in a simple style, illustrative but not scientifically detailed. Little insects are sometimes shown beside the fruits and once or twice there is a charming frog. They are surely not slides for a professional teacher’s lectures.

I asked Juniper how he explained their unusual level of style. “Power-point presentations, crossed with dirty pictures”, he said. What he meant, he explained, was that these pictures were taken around to show off to important garden owners and their head gardeners, encouraging them to buy this or that variety as shown. Some of the paintings have fingermarks on them, so Juniper imagines a travelling nurseryman, taking them to the hall of a great house, laying them out on a long table and letting the clients touch them, sometimes fresh from the flowerbed, and then order the varieties which they liked. The frogs, the bugs and the lush, ripe fruits were early versions of the seductive pictures in a modern nursery catalogue.

Close study has now confirmed that several unknown artists were involved. They were aware of conventions in botanical art, but were certainly not professional fruit painters. Perhaps they worked in nursery gardens. So far as the researchers know, this bound portfolio is unique at its early date. Some of you may perhaps know other examples, before 1640, lurking in a family collection, a little-known volume or a local museum of natural history, it would be great to hear about more evidence.

One of the pictures refers to JT’s “Amber Plum” which he brought out of France and grew at Hatfield. JT is, therefore, the great gardener John Tradescant who travelled and imported so many plants, including fruits, and worked at palatial Hatfield for his first patrons, the Cecil family. Neither the handwriting nor the third-person style of this caption suggest that Tradescant himself painted or wrote on the pictures. Many of the varieties of fruit can be matched with those known in a Tradescant nursery catalogue, but not all. Only later was this bound portfolio known as “The Tradescants’ Orchard”.

Were the watercolours commissioned so that a salesman could take them round and tout the nursery list? Tradescant ran an important nursery at Lambeth in the generation after the word “nurseryman” is first attested in English. Ashmole acquired the Tradescants’ collection of curiosities, the basis of the later Ashmolean Museum. Was it through them that these paintings came into his possession?

Tradescant and his gardening son are buried in Lambeth outside the former church which is now London’s Garden Museum. Their fine poetic epitaph refers to them as “a world of wonders in one closet shut”. The pictures of the “orchard” are now more available and nearer a solution than ever before, and are one of the wonders of an age of impassioned gardening. The researchers have done a fine job of tracing a few of the varieties, but only a few, to varieties we can still buy. When I next eat a Prune Damson or a Portuguese Quince, I will think of their linear ancestors in this early bundle of watercolours and feel part of a chain which is so much older than my side plate.

‘The Tradescants’ Orchard’, by Barry Juniper and Hanneke Grootenboer, is published by the Bodleian Library, £30

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