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John Lindley

It would hardly be possible to hold a current membership of the Royal Horticultural Society without being aware of Professor Lindley. He will forever be eponymous with the vast library that bears his name. His achievements were immense and any single accomplishment would have guaranteed at least a worthy footnote in botanical history.

John Lindley was primarily a pioneering orchidologist and artist of the highest merit. He became a university professor of botany and secretary to the Horticultural Society of London (now the Royal Horticultural Society). He recognised the importance of education, literacy and professionalism in the gardening trade and later initiated examinations for those willing to study. As a political activist, he campaigned against the taxation on glass and wrote reports on the mono-culture of potatoes in Ireland. Writing of the catastrophic failures of the potato crop due to blight, he warned of the starvation that would follow and of the subsequent economic migrations. With his contemporaries Joseph Paxton and William Hooker, he produced a forthright report on the conditions of the Royal Gardens at Kew. This act led to the preservation and improvement of that magnificent estate which is enjoyed today by members of the public and also stands peerless as a scientific institution of global importance.

John Lindley was born into humble surroundings at his father's horticultural nursery in Catton, near Norwich, in eastern England on the 5th of February 1799. John was educated at Norwich Grammar School where he learnt Latin and Greek. Forever hungry for knowledge, he also learnt the French language and drawing skills from a French refugee, and horticulture from his father. Despite the misfortune of blindness in his left eye, Lindley possessed an astonishing gift for artistic detail. William Hooker had noted his talent and it was he who allowed Lindley to work in his library and who recommended him to Sir Joseph Banks.

In January 1819 Lindley left for London. Working with great diligence and accuracy from Bank's house in Soho Square, Lindley drew, described and named new varieties of plants with an insight and maturity that gained him a Fellowship of the Linnaean Society at the age of twenty-one. Upon the death of Banks in 1820 the Horticultural Society of London employed Lindley to draw roses. Within two years he had been appointed Assistant Secretary to the Society's Garden at Chiswick. It was during this period that he continued to develop his fascination for orchideae. In April 1821 he commenced the publication of an exquisitely illustrated set of coloured plates of exotic plants sixteen of which were orchids. Within a year he had met John Claudius Loudon and collaborated with him in producing the elaborate and comprehensive volume, "An Encyclopaedia of Plants". (1829).

In the meantime he had accepted the appointment of Professor of Botany at the newly founded and non-sectarian London University (later renamed University College London), and in 1828 had been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London, sponsored by Robert Brown, (Sir Joseph Banks' librarian), Thomas Andrew Knight and Joseph Sabine, the Secretary of the Horticultural Society of London. To have been able to deliver five morning lectures a week at University College, whilst living in Turnham Green could, in that era, have posed an impossible logistics problem. Forever punctual and committed to both professional and secretarial careers, Lindley simply hired a horse and for many years rode to and from each assignment. He managed to find the time to continue his classification of orchids and in 1829 took over the editorial responsibilities of "The Botanical Register". With Loudon he edited "The Gardener's Chronicle", and the "Proceedings and Transactions", of the Horticultural Society of London. Writing in a clear direct style he wrote numerous works during the following decade and was fervently concerned with popular education. By way of relaxation from his many duties, Lindley spent his weekends drilling as a volunteer in the South Middlesex Militia.

Other than his Fellowship of the Royal Society, Lindley received no British honours during his lifetime. Such was his status in Europe however, through his published works, that honorary Doctrates were bestowed upon him in Germany, France and Switzerland. However he was held in high esteem by many figures in authority and was selected, with Joseph Paxton and John William, (gardener to the Earl of Surrey), to report as a committee, upon the future of the Royal Gardens at Kew. The death of George 3rd in 1820 had ended the royal patronage and the Treasury had subsequently undertaken the costs of maintenance. The three men inspected the gardens in February 1838, and Lindley observed that the garden "should either be at once taken for public purposes, gradually made worthy of the country, and converted into a powerful means of promoting national science, or it should be abandoned" (Hepper 1982). The matter was duly laid before parliament, and in subsequently finding the support of the young Queen Victoria, became public property.

Lindley had now come to the notice of the government as a man of authority and conviction, having also successfully campaigned against the taxation on glass. In 1845 he was asked to investigate the alarming and subsequently disastrous incidences of the mysterious disease that was causing potatoes to rot most famously in Ireland, but also in the Western Highlands of Scotland. In addition to his correspondence with Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel and other senior government figures from 1846-49 Lindley ensured that the public were aware of the pitiful conditions in Ireland through the pages of "The Gardener's Chronicle".

It was Lindley's enduring devotion to the study of orchids for which he will be principally remembered, and in his time became the leading botanical authority describing and naming a vast number of new species. He also organised horticultural shows for the Society and in 1861, despite failing health took charge of the exhibits for the International Exhibition of 1862 in South Kensington. This exhausting work almost certainly contributed to a breakdown and Lindley retired from his London professorship, and later from the RHS in 1863. He and his wife Sarah travelled to Vichy in Southern France to rest and imbibe the anti-rheumatic waters but the great man was in decline. He died at his home at Acton Green on the 1st of November 1865.

After his death, The RHS purchased his botanical and horticultural library of 1300 volumes, for £700. One hundred and forty years after his death the Society has continued to expand the world's largest collection of horticultural literature, which is currently maintained across five sites. Furthermore in December 1865 the Royal Horticultural Society instituted the Lindley Medal, awarded for an exhibit of exceptional educational value. Much of his orchid herbarium and drawings were sold to the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew with the University of Cambridge acquiring the remainder.

Published Works:

Collecteanea Botanica (1821-25)

An Encyclopaedia of Plants (1829) (with John Claudius Loudon)

Introduction to the Natural System of Botany (1830)

The Genera and Species of Orchidaceous Plants (1830-40)

Flora Medica (1838)Theory and Practice of Horticulture (1840 & 1855)

The Vegetable Kingdom (1846)

Paxton's Flower Garden (1850-53) (with Joseph Paxton)

The Gardener's Chronicle (1829-43)

The Gardener's Chronicle and Agricultural Gazette 22 Volumes, Principal Editor (1843-1865)


Hepper F. Nigel (1982) Kew: Gardens for Science and Pleasure HMSO, London p13.

Stearn William T (1965) "The Self-Taught Botanists Who Saved The Kew Botanic Garden" In Taxon Vol. XIV No.9 pp. 293-298

Stearn William T. (1999) John Lindley, 1799-1865 Gardener, Botanist andPioneer Orchidologist: Bi-Centenary Celebration Volume Antique Collectors' Club Ltd.

Contibutor: Jonathan Cass

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