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Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker:
Traveller and Plant Collector
Reviewed by Cynthia Postan
Wales, UK

The Book Corner

Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker: Traveller and Plant Collector

By Ray Desmond. 286 pp, 1999, illustrated in colour and black & white. The Antique Collectors' Club with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. £29.50

Rhododendron lovers must have a special place in their hearts for Joseph Dalton Hooker who, in 1849, introduced from their Himalayan homeland nearly forty species of the genus. Their progeny, allied to later introductions, have, as we know, filled gardens and woodlands throughout the temperate world. If tribute were still needed to the memory and achievements of Sir Joseph Hooker, Britain's foremost botanist, this volume would supply it.

Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker:
Traveller and Plant Collector
Joseph Dalton Hooker

Joseph Hooker was blest with many of the essential gifts a scientist needs, but one helped to make him pre-eminent in his field. He was a talented artist: this together with his powers of observation and, in the era before the camera, the speed with which he was able to transfer to paper what his eye and brain saw were probably unique amongst his peers. He made full use of his talent.

This book reproduces, mostly in colour, nearly all of the sketch books of his Antarctic and Himalayan expeditions, giving us a visual record which could hardly be bettered. The restoration of the sketch books, preserved at Kew, has been made possible with generous support from a private source, but their interpretation by Ray Desmond, lately librarian and archivist at Kew, reveals the tools and methods of one who was an artist as well as a great explorer, taxonomist, and phytogeographer. He allows us to follow Hooker into the hitherto unknown Sino-Himalaya and to see how he formulated his questions and recorded his answers. He was first and foremost interested in finding out more about why and how the plants he collected got to the different places where they occur (phytogeography). It was this aspect of his quest that brought him into a lifelong friendship and collaboration with Charles Darwin, for whom he provided much essential data for his work on natural selection.

The first two chapters tell of his upbringing by his botanist father and his precocious interest in plants. His father, William, had been appointed to the newly created chair of botany at Glasgow where botanical studies were essential to the medical school. Thus the young Joseph also qualified later as a doctor. Joseph's first opportunity came when, through his father's good offices, he was offered the opportunity to join Capt. (later Sir) James Clark Ross's famous four-year voyage to the Antarctic, exploring and mapping the icecap in HMSS Erebus and Terror. Winters (or rather summers because of the southern hemisphere) were spent in New Zealand and Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) where Joseph collected plants and perfected his own particular gifts of infinite curiosity, patient observation, and meticulous record-taking - attributes that likened him to Darwin who had a few years earlier made his classic voyage on the Beagle and with whom he constantly corresponded.

The illustrated record of these chapters are of great interest though fewer of the sketches are from Joseph's own pen. However the botanical account of the four year expedition resulted in his Flora of the Antarctica (1844/5) in which, for the first time, his field notes and drawings of plants were transformed with the aid of the almost psychic skill of Walter Hood Fitch into hand-coloured lithographs, the new process which had replaced engraving on wood or copper for botanical illustration. There are nine of these magnificent examples reproduced here in colour and four more which were done for Curtis's Botanical Magazine.

From our special point of view, the most important period in Joseph's life was about to begin. His father William had been appointed Director of the new National Botanical Garden at Kew in 1841 and as soon as Joseph returned from Antarctica in 1842, father and son began to plan his next botanical expedition. Funded by the British government with an allowance of £400 a year, Joseph set off for India on the HMS Sidon with the intention of exploring the flora of the Himalayas, of which little was yet known.

Chapters 7, 8, 9, and 10 cover the momentous years of 1848 and 1849 when Joseph was travelling first in Sikkim and Nepal and then in the Khasia Hills of Assam. He recorded his travels minutely, and they were later published (1854) as his Himalayan Journals. Mr. Desmond has used them, together with his letters to his family and friends, to tell how Joseph fulfilled his ambition. Based in Darjeeling, he assembled his team of Lepchas (the local tribesmen), porters, and ponies and planned his expeditions. He made repeated tours of the river valleys into the foothills leading up to Kangchenjunga and the passes into Tibet which was his ultimate objective.

These four chapters give a detailed account of his daily life. The problem of finding and training native collectors, the appalling monsoon weather that made drying and pressing plants a heroic task and often kept him soaked to the skin for days on end, his efforts to map and survey the rivers and calculate the height of the mountain peaks, and the attempts, often frustrated, to send living plants home to Kew via Calcutta, were all lucidly set down in the journal.

There are vivid descriptions of the hardships when trekking - the difficult terrain, mountain rivers to be crossed on swaying bamboo bridges, impenetrable rhododendron scrub and, always, the leeches and the biting insects. There were also unfriendly villagers, lack of fresh food, obstructive officials and lamas, and even a fraudulent havildar, all culminating in the dramatic standoff between the weak Raja of Sikkim with his scheming Dewan and Joseph's companion, the Political Officer in Sikkim, Colonel Campbell, who was held hostage for several months in constant fear of his life.

For months on end Joseph's life was a wandering one, but on 24 July 1849 he achieved his ambition of reaching the boundary between Sikkim and Tibet. Interspersed with all these practical daily occurrences and near disasters are wonderful descriptions of scenery, atmospheric effects, the fascinating plants, and above all the majestic mountains, frightening and serene in turn, with the arid, bleak passes where nothing grew. The cat and mouse game of politics played out between the Tibetans and Sikkimese guards determined to frustrate Hooker in his desire to reach (and survey) the frontier was another obstacle, and only his determination and obstinacy finally prevailed.

All of this makes compulsive reading and is vividly told by Mr. Desmond, but in the end it is the illustrations that make the whole of Hooker's active life so real to us today. The connecting strand is that of the visual effect on the reader of the countless small pictures, some in pencil, many in water colour, made by Joseph in the field in his little notebook, which he managed to have always ready while weighed down by barometers and thermometers, and theodolites and vasculums full of plants. His observation of the small details of what he saw is incredible. To the "on the spot" sketches he often juxtaposed little wood engravings, often only vignettes, made for the published Journals by the faithful Walter Hood Fitch, who was able to interpret the reality of the scene he never saw but somehow could imagine. The combined work of these two men has achieved an immediacy that the cleverest camera could not. The human eye has defeated the machine for once.

As a contrast to these small pictures are the monumental hand-coloured lithographs of the genus Rhododendron built up by Fitch from Hooker's sketches and drawings. These were printed in Rhododendrons of the Sikkim Himalaya, published in two folio volumes in 1849 and 1850. Reproduced here in colour are Rhododendrons falconeri, barbatum, edgeworthii, and griffithianum. Other coloured reproductions of Fitch's interpretations of Hooker's drawings, amongst others meconopsis and primulas, were made (in a much smaller format) for Curtis's Botanical Magazine. All these illustrations from whatever source make this book quite outstanding and worthy to stand by the great botanical books of all time.

The final chapters (10 and 11) chronicle Hooker's later years, which were spent in his own words, bowed down with administration as his father's successor, Director of Kew for twenty years. He made two or three other expeditions to the wild, collecting and classifying the plants he found: to the Pacific North West of the USA and to Morocco. Important they may be, but they are short on adventure when compared to his early life.

Hooker's scientific and literary output was enormous by any standards (see his bibliography on pp. 275-8). His Voyages and Journals are classic travel books, his text books still used today, and his water colours, if ever they appeared in the sale room, would surely rival those of his contemporary Edward Lear.

It seems ungrateful to cavil on one small issue, but this reader would have found it helpful to have a list of the illustrations for reference. The captions have all the information needed, but if you lose the page it is hard to find the picture you want.


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