The search for ‘La Botaniste’

The search for ‘La Botaniste’

Sorting through your attic or garage can lead to interesting discoveries and mementos from the past, and staff at the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) have made a surprising discovery doing just that.

While going through old plant books, they found poems, doodles, plant specimens, and a cartoon tucked away inside a copy of The English Flora from 1830.

The owner, Isabella A Allen, appeared to be a keen plant woman. But, her name has since been lost to history.

She may be the 19th century botanical illustrator who we know little about, or she could be one of the many uncelebrated women with a passion for plants during the 19th century.

Either way, the RHS is hoping to identify who she is and find out more about her life.

“All we’ve got is a reasonably common name and lots of contextual stuff that she’s interested in biology,” said Fiona Davison, the head of libraries and exhibitions.

“What I’m hoping is that somebody is aware in their family tree of an Isabella A Allen, that they’ve got any information about being a botanical artist or involved in botany.”

Staff also found a collection of pressed flowers in the book, written by Sir James Edward Smith, which gives them a further insight into her knowledge of plants.

“I think she clearly is a keen botanist because pressed in a number of pages are wild flowers,” Fiona said.

Kidney vetch, cranesbill, lousewort, and sow thistle among others were found.

“They’re wildflowers when you’re out on a botanising trip you would have picked up, identified with the help of the book and pressed.”

Though the book itself isn’t rare, the annotations, bookmarks, and cartoon make it unique from the many other copies the RHS owns. 

Staff came across the find while going through boxes of books ahead of the combining or their two collections in new laboratories.

“I don’t think that this volume had been opened in decades. It’s just been sat in an attic in Wisley,” Fiona said. “We opened this little one and we were really amazed to find all of this additional material left by its original owner.”

As well as an annotation reading “this is the book of Isabella A Allen”, a print known as a personification was also found inside.

Personifications, printed and sold as sheets, depicted people made up of artefacts that embody their character or tools of their trade.

The one found inside Isabella’s book depicted a person made of flowers and vegetables, which was produced by a male midwife and surgeon called George Spratt.

The book also contains a handwritten poem that appears to be an adaptation of a common poem, including a reference to botanists filling a garden with plants with Greek and Latin names.

Though the RHS has unsuccessfully attempted to track her down, it’s hoped someone can help them solve the mystery.

“We hope that we’ll be able to share it with people and show it in the new library as part of the wider effort we’re making to encourage people to take an interest in the plants that are growing around them in the same way that Ms Allen did,” Fiona said.

Image: The Royal Horticultural Society