Fascinating guest blog from David Marsh of The Gardens Trust about 18th century botanical illustrator, Mary Lawrance, whose book on roses is one of the rarest horticultural gems. To see the full post with lots of images, follow this link.
The British Library Rare Books room is not usually the place where people get over-excited, but occasionally there are Eureka moments. Sometimes they’re the result of long patient reference checking when you realise your original hypothesis is true, or ploughing through vast tomes for a good quote to prove a point or grab a reader’s attention and sometimes they are simply serendipity. Today’s post is one such.
Following a discussion in one of the classes I teach, I had an idea for a worthy post on how and why women became widely involved in botany in the late 18thc and thought I’d call up a selection of books and magazines by women from the period to see if I could find anything interesting to write about. They included a couple by an artist named Mary Lawrance who I thought, to judge from her brief Wikipedia entry might be interesting but probably wasn’t going to set the world on fire. See what you think?
Here’s her Wikipedia entry in full
Mary Lawrance (also known as Mary Kearse) (fl. 1794–1830) was a British botanical illustrator who specialized in flowers. She also taught botanical illustration.Her first known exhibition was at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1795. Between 1796 and 1799 she created and published The Various Kinds of Roses Cultivated in England. The book featured paintings of roses that were drawn from nature. In 1818, she married a man with a surname, Kearse. She exhibited work until 1830. Her work is held in the collection of the New York Public Library.
Not Wikipedia’s most enlightening [or accurate] entry, but anyway…. a trolley with two large archival boxes appeared and as I opened the first of them it was clear that I had to find out more about Mary Lawrence and then spread the word on here. Inside was a large folio volume bound in gold embossed red leather, with A Collection of Roses from Nature 1800 blocked in gold on the spine.
Setting it gingerly on a book-stand and opening the first pages revealed first a highly ornamental, if rather florid, frontispiece and then 90 coloured engravings all of which had been drawn from life, then engraved and hand-coloured by Mary herself. She must have been a one-woman powerhouse because she also handled the printing, publishing and marketing herself.
[All the images are from the book unless otherwise stated. There are two digital copies, one made available on YouTube by Auckland Library in New Zealand & the other by the University of Wisconsin. Click on the links to view the whole book]
So what do we know about Mary Lawrance? First of all, recent research by Auckland Libraries who have just been given a copy of the book, suggest that in fact she was born in 1776 and did not die until 1845.
She also seems to have been quite well connected. The Royal Academician Joseph Farington recorded in his diary in April 1804 that she met him at the Academy “with a note from Charles Greville, brother to Lord Warwick, desiring that Loutherburg and I would endeavour to place her paintings in the Exhibition”. Unfortunately he was unable to do so. Another aspiring artist, Amelia Noel, had told Farington a week or so earlier , that: “it was of great consequence to Her to have a picture in the Exhibition as Her Scholars judged of Her ability in the Art from that circumstance.” I guess that held true for Mary Lawrance too.
The Royal Academy, founded in 1768, famously had only 2 women members in its early days, indeed no more were admitted until 1922. From that its traditionally been accepted that women had no real place there. In fact, as a recent study by Paris Spies-Gans shows women actually regularly participated in the Academy’s Summer Exhibition from its launch, and that from 1769–1830 works by over 700 women were displayed there. It’s also known that even if Mary wasn’t successful on this occasion she had been in earlier years, and was to be again in the future. It was an important part of her marketing and she seems to have used these Somerset House exhibitions as way of getting her work into print as well. It may also have served as a good advert for her other work “giving lessons in drawing botany at 1/2 guinea a lesson and a guinea entrance.”
At this point I knew next to nothing about the significance of A Collection of Roses from Nature. Had I been asked beforehand who wrote the first book on the subject I’d probably have said Pierre-Joseph Redouté, of Malmaison fame, but in fact Mary Lawrance predates his work by 20 years and her Roses from Nature was the first entirely devoted to the family, indeed I think, to any single flower. She started compiling it in 1793, although the first plate isn’t dated until July 1796.📷
It has a dedication to Queen Charlotte, herself a keen plantswoman and collector of botanical art. It was not cheap. According to Blanche Henrey [British Botanical and Horticultural Literature before 1800, vol.2 1975] it was issued on subscription in 30 groups of 3 plates for 10s6d each set, with the last plate dated February 1799. The date 1800 on the cover of the BL copy presumably relates to the date it was purchased or bound.
The fact there were 90 plates led to the next obvious question “where did she find so many different members of the rose family?” 90 is a pretty amazing number given that John Gerard only listed 17 and John Parkinson 29. Mary herself doesn’t say, indeed apart from the plate titles there is no explanatory text of any sort. However Ellen Willmott, author of The Genus Rosa of 1910 claimed [unfortunately without any references] that “all that was interesting and beautiful in the Vine Nursery, Hammersmith, soon made its way to [Mary’s] house in Queen Anne Street. Not only Mr Lee, but most of the other nurserymen, made a point of sending their new flowers to be drawn by her. It was thought to be an honour for the owner as well as for the flower when Miss Lawrance painted its portrait.”
Mr Lee could be either the father, or son, both named James, who were in partnership with Lewis Kennedy and later his son John, at the Vineyard Nursery, on what is now the site of Olympia. The elder James Lee had been apprenticed to Philip Miller the famous long-serving superintendent of Chelsea Physic Garden, and went from there working as gardener at Syon House for Duke of Somerset, and later to the Duke of Argyll at Whitton Park. He was also to become a correspondent of Linnaeus, and in 1760 published An Introduction to Botany, explaining the the Linnean system of classification.
Lee and Kennedy soon established themselves as the leading nursery of their day. They were in correspondence with many plant hunters, notably Francis Masson in the Cape, and so became responsible for the introduction to commerce of many newly discovered/imported plants including the first China rose in 1787. Their name can be found regularly throughout Curtis’s Botanical Magazine and the Botanical Register.
James Lee senior died in 1795, which might make it more likely that it was James junior who knew Mary and supplied her specimens. Its also possible that she grew some in her own garden. Jennifer Potter notes in her book The Rose that there are receipts in the Croome archive for roses she supplied to the Earl of Coventry, although I did wonder if perhaps they were for sets of engravings of roses rather than rose bushes themselves, or whether they were for the purchase of Rosa lawranciana which is listed in the 1824 Hortus Croomensis [the catalogue of plants growing in the gardens at Croome]. This was introduced from Mauritius by her friend the horticulturist Robert Sweet, and named it after her. According to H.C. Andrews Roses [vol2. 1828] it had flowered for the first time in the Hammersmith nursery.
Mary Lawrance painted from home in Queen Anne Street East, a reasonably fashionable address, just off Portland Place in Marylebone, where she lived with her parents, probably until 1813 when she married Thomas Kearse. After that the couple’s address was in Foley Street [which was either a continuation of Queen Anne Street or the renaming of part of it, so it might even have been the same house!] from where she continued to work until at least 1830.
Wherever the plants came from Ellen Willmott claims the engravings created “much sensation” when published and “the demand was far in excess of the number of copies printed.” She thought this was because “roses were beginning to take a prominent place in gardens and were rapidly gaining in popularity.”
I wouldn’t be surprised if Willmott was right. The book is impressive both in the scale of the conception and the quality of Mary’s work. The engravings are beautifully done and although sometimes the hand colouring is a little flat there are also touches of what I assume is gum arabic in places to give a sheen to parts of the leaves /flower. According to Miss Willmott Mary “always attached the greatest importance to the quality of her colours, which were all prepared at her own house and under her own supervision.” I accept that they are not the equal of greatest of botanical art but judged against “amateur” contemporaries they are more than competent.
However not everyone agrees with my assessment. The next book entirely devoted to roses was published in Germany between 1802 and 1820 by Carl Roessig who called Lawrance’s work “mostly inaccurate…she rarely takes notice of the characteristic features..and only here and there one comes across one or to roses which are unmistakably recognisable.” He may not have admired it but it’s interesting that a copy had reached him at Leipzig in a comparatively short space of time.
Wilfred Blunt in The Art of Botanical Illustration  was even more scathing and wondered why she had achieved such “undeserved fame”. The illustrations “though decorative enough, leave one with the conviction that Miss Lawrence, however efficient she may have been as a teacher, was not really able to practice what she preached.”
The engravings were”amateur” and had “the flatness of Chinese work without the oriental beauty of line or rhythm.” Gordon Dunthorne, in Flower and Fruit Prints of the 18th and Early 19th Centuries [the standard bibliography, 1938] thought the engraving “decorative but lacking in botanical accuracy”. Nor did he like her engraving technique which he argued “entirely fails to express any modelling or structure of the flower.” Blanche Henrey agreed that Mary might not have been the best draughtsman or modeller but “her plates are effective and, on the whole, she represents well the character of the plant she depicts”. She has “a rather marvelous colour sense, although the application of colour is somewhat crude.”
Perhaps the description of the volume now in the New York Public Library is the fairest of all criticism. Although the illustrations are “less delicate in drawing and coloring than Redouté’s Les Roses, Mrs. Lawrance’s roses have about them a certain charm and prettiness that one associates
You can judge for yourself in the online copies [links above] or by visiting the British Library or the RHS Lindley Library who each own a copy. But if you fancy your own copy Amazon tell me they don’t currently have one available, but I have found one for sale for £50,000 [& I kid you not an extra £3 for gift wrapping] I’m sure Mary would have been pleased that her work was still so popular and highly valued.