If, like me, you lack the green fingers to care even for plants such as aloes and cacti that are said to ‘love neglect’, then perhaps a beautiful illustration will be a more sustainable solution to greenery in the home. Our Print Shop is a fantastic source of such images, regardless of your level of expertise in plant care!

Terrariums, aloes and cacti are, it seems, having a bit of a ‘moment’ in interior decoration circles. The now ubiquitous hipster aesthetic, with stripped wood tables and exposed lightbulbs, is often accessorised with a smattering of these almost alien-like plants.


Melocactus americana minor Boerh. by Georg Dionysius Ehret, c.1735 (© The Royal Society, MS/668/32)


However, this fascination is not new, as demonstrated by these striking botanical paintings of aloe specimens. They are by Georg Dionysius Ehret (1708-1770) and Jacob van Huysum (1682-1745), from the annual collection of 50 plants sent to the Royal Society by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries from their Chelsea Physic Garden.



Aloe africana by Georg Dionysius Ehret, c.1735 (© The Royal Society, MS/668/10)


Ehret, a German who moved to England after travels in Switzerland and France selling his work, was a hugely influential botanical illustrator, famed for the scrupulous precision of his renderings. He is notable for his collaboration with Carl Linnaeus on a project financed by the wealthy George Clifford, a Dutch banker – Hortus Cliffortianus (1737), a copy of which is held in our collection. This text illustrates the botanical and zoological centre at Clifford’s country house Hartekamp and, as indicated by a subtle background detail in the frontispiece by Jan Wandelaar, celebrates Linnaeus’s success in his efforts to make the banana plant bear fruit. He was the first in Europe to accomplish this feat, and so (as you would) popped a banana in the post addressed to the renowned botanist Antoine Laurent de Jussieu, who had failed in his attempts.

Van Huysum, a Dutch illustrator who also moved to England, had a rather different style to his more eminent contemporary Ehret, as he made efforts to fuse painterly effects with accurate botanical depictions. In this case we may place both artists’ renderings of the same plant side by side and shoehorn a competitive element into proceedings – whose work do you prefer?


Aloe succotrina, as depicted by (L) Georg Dionysius Ehret (MS/668/6) and (R) Jacob van Huysum (MS/668/7). Both c.1735 and © The Royal Society


Finally, I’d like to devote a moment to a letter received by Philip Miller (1691–1771), gardener to the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries, who was the man asked by the Royal Society’s Council to select the plants to be preserved in this way in 1734. This letter from the aforementioned George Clifford (EL/C2/82), does not relate to his botanical credentials, but instead a rather bizarre incident. Clifford describes an odd affliction that had recently affected his 12-year-old son Peter, who blew his nose one day and produced two small dead worms and three living ones. This greatly surprised Doctor Boerhaeven, called in to treat Peter, who administered ‘physical water’ which cleared up the complaint until a repeat incident six months later. This time the same treatment banished the complaint completely. This sounds to me like a practical joke played by a son on the brink of teenager-dom, however it may be that 18th century youngsters were beyond such hijinks!


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