Over the past few weeks I’ve been adding some rather striking images to the Royal Society’s rich Picture Library. They comprise over 50 beautiful pencil drawings and sketches by the English botanist and explorer Richard Spruce (1817-1893). Along with the naturalists Alfred Russel Wallace FRS and Henry Walter Bates FRS, Spruce was one of the three great mid-nineteenth century British explorers of South America.


Richard Spruce, from ‘Notes of a botanist on the Amazon & Andes’ (1908)


Although never elected a Fellow of the Society, Spruce, a commercial plant collector and former school teacher, made a great contribution to our knowledge of Amazonian botany. His particular passion was for the tiny and often overlooked liverworts, but over the course of 15 years of exploration in Brazil, Ecuador, Venezuela and Peru, he sent back to England a vast collection of over 7,000 flowering plant species as well as undertaking ethnographic and linguistic studies of the indigenous people of South American.

Today Spruce is best remembered for his collecting work in 1860, primarily in Ecuador. As recommended by William Hooker FRS, Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, this was an initiative to collect the Cinchona plant, the source of the anti-malarial drug quinine. On his return to England in 1864 Spruce’s health was shattered by years of collecting and living in difficult terrain. Partially paralysed and in financial turmoil with the loss of most of his modest savings in the crash of a trading company, he eventually settled back in his childhood home in Yorkshire. He continued his botanical work, writing up his collections and maintaining a prolific botanical correspondence. He was urged to the meetings of learned societies by friends but apparently did not enjoy the prospect of the limelight this would involve.

Following Spruce’s death from influenza Wallace honoured his friend by publishing ‘Notes of a botanist on the Amazon & Andes’ (1908), using Spruce’s various letters, papers, journals and publications. The original sketches from this two-volume work now reside in the collections of the Royal Society.


Landscape view of Saõ Gabriel da Cachoeira, Rio Negro, 1852 (RS.10930)


Amongst Spruce’s carefully observed landscape sketches is this depiction of Saõ Gabriel da Cachoeira, Brazil, where Wallace and Spruce met (discussing species, presaging the subject of evolution!) following Wallace’s recovery from a life-threatening bout of malaria. On first glance I thought this a rather tranquil and idyllic scene, but in a letter to the botanist George Bentham FRS Spruce recorded that he was never so near dying of hunger as in this village, whose sole non-Indian inhabitants were soldiers, who were criminals and mostly murderers, and whose punishment was to serve in this remote location. The soldiers twice burgled Spruce’s hut where he and his collections were also plagued by vampire bats and leafcutter ants. Spruce noted to Bentham that his last news from England was about a year old and he seemed to have taken his ‘last leave of civilisation’ in this equatorial outpost

My favourite images by Spruce are a group of drawings of native South Americans and perhaps the first portraits ever made of individual Brazilian Indians. However they too reveal a darker side to Spruce’s explorations.


Portraits of Macú [Maku] (Hupda) sisters (?), 1853 (RS.10920)


These two girls, possibly sisters, aged approximately 16 and 9, Spruce found when he visited Marabitanas fort on the Rio Negro. The girls of the Hupda people, had been taken from the Rio Içana by the Commandant of Marabitanas. Spruce records that their village had been destroyed, the men all killed and they along with other women and children taken as captives.

Aside from portraits and landscapes the other main subject of Spruce’s drawings at the Society are examples of ‘picture-writing’. Both Spruce and Wallace were early investigators of indigenous rock art. Wallace made drawings of animals and men found carved into rock on an island near the mouth of the Rio Branco. Sadly these along with many of his specimens were lost when the ship on which he returned to England caught fire and was wrecked. Spruce recorded examples of rock art on the Casiquiari and Uaupés rivers, relayed interpretations of them by the Indians accompanying him, and offered his own meanings. The image to the left below depicted, according to both Spruce and his guides, a manioc (or cassava) pottery oven. Manioc is the staple food of indigenous people throughout Amazonia and its preparation involves the removal of the lethal cyanide it contains before cooking. On the right is an eclectic group of figures showing (left to right) a quiver for holding darts of the blowing cane, two freshwater river dolphins, and a map.


Indigenous rock art observed at Laja de Capibara, River Casiquiari, 1853 (left: RS.10904; right: RS.10902)


If you’d like to find out more about Spruce and Wallace’s Amazonian work the library holds copies of both their travel narratives, and we’ve just added John Hemming’s ‘Naturalists in Paradise: Wallace, Bates and Spruce in the Amazon’ (2015) to our new books display.


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