25th april 2005


The Tradescants were a little dynasty of royal gardeners and collectors of plants and curios: their joint tomb is in the churchyard of St Mary's Lambeth (now the Museum of Garden History) and carries this epitaph, written by John Aubrey of Brief Lives fame:

Know, stranger, ere thou pass; beneath this stone,
Lye John Tradescant, grandsire, father, son;
The last dy'd in his spring; the other two
Liv'd till they had travelled Orb and Nature through,
As by their choice Collections may appear,
Of what is rare, in land, in sea, in air;
Whilst they (as Homer's Iliad in a nut)
A world of wonders in one closet shut.
These famous Antiquarians that had been
Both Gardiners to the Rose and Lily Queen,
Transplanted now themselves, sleep here; and when
Angels shall with their trumpets waken men,
And fire shall purge the world, these hence shall rise
And change this Garden for a Paradise.

The grandsire was gardener to Charles I, introduced many plants into Britain and filled his house with curiosities. His son followed in this tradition and in a catalogue of his Museum Tradescantianum we find:

Easter eggs of the patriarchs of Jerusalem; two feathers of the phoenix' tayle; claw of the bird Roc, who, as authors report, is able to truss an elephant; a natural dragon above two inches long; the Dodad1, from the isle of Mauritius, so big as not to be able to fly; the bustard, as big as a turkey, usually taken by greyhounds on Newmarket Heath; a cow's tail from Arabia; half a hazel-nut, with seventy pieces of household stuff in it; a set of chessmen in a peppercorn; landskips, stories, trees, and figures, cut in paper by some of the emperors; a trunnion2 of Drake's ship; knife wherewith Hudson was killed in Hudson's Bay; Anna Bullen's3 night-vail; Edward the Confessor's gloves.

He bequeathed this collection to Elias Ashmole, who passed it on to Oxford University where it formed the nucleus of the Ashmolean Museum.

1 Does the word doodad come from the word dodo? The Tradescant specimen is now in the Oxford University Museum
2 A cannon fitting
3 Anne Boleyn's