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ASBS Newsletter – Book Review

John Lindley 1799 - 1865, Gardener - Botanist and Pioneer Orchidologist, Bicentenary Celebration Volume

Edited by William T. Stearn.

(From ASBS Newsletter Number 98, March 1999)

Published by the Antique Collector's Club in association with the Royal Horticultural Society. ISBN 1 85149 296 8.
231 pages, frontispiece and 42 colour plates, 29 figures.
Hardcover 25 pounds (UK), $US48.65 from

This book is a joint work under the editorship of Professor Stearn and to which he contributes the general biography of Lindley. Also included are two lectures by Lindley himself as well as self-contained contributions from Phillip Cribb, Christopher Brickell, William Chaloner, Brent Elliott, Kathryn Bridge, William Tjaden and J. Marguerite Allford touching on specific aspects of Lindley's interests. Notes on the ten parts comprising this volume are given below.

William Stearn served for twenty years as Librarian of the Lindley Library, Royal Horticultural Society (interrupted, however, by six years serving in the Royal Air Force during of the second world war) and so is ideally placed to compile and edit this volume commemorating Lindley's works on the bicentenary of his birth. As outlined by Stearn in his preface, perhaps the major advantage that this work has over previous biographies of Lindley was access to a recently uncovered "treasure trove" of Lindley family documentation from the Archives of British Columbia in Victoria, Canada.

One of the fascinations with botanical biographies such as this are the personal details and interactions gleaned about historical figures whose scientific achievements we consider regularly in our own work.

For example, I was surprised to learn that Lindley lost the sight of one eye as a child, although it clearly didn't impede his power of detailed character observation or his ability to produce accurate and visually pleasing botanical illustrations, a number of which are presented throughout this book.

I also enjoyed piecing together some of Lindley's relationship with Robert Brown throughout the volume. From their meeting in Sir Joseph Bank's library and herbarium when Lindley first came to London at the age of twenty, to Brown's sponsorship of Lindley as a Fellow of the Royal Society and his presence at Lindley's inaugural lecture as Professor of Botany at the University of London, it is apparent that Brown played the role of mentor to Lindley.

On Lindley's side it is clear, especially from comments made during his 1829 lecture, that his own belief in natural systems of classification were strongly influenced by Brown, as one of the first Englishmen to utilise such a system, for his Prodromus in 1810.

However, as Cribb describes in Part IV, they were to fall out in 1830 over some apparently innocuous remarks published by Lindley to which Brown took offence but for which Lindley would not publicly apologise. Their relationship never recovered. A more detailed account of this episode and subsequent enmity, from Brown's perspective, can be found in Mabberley (1985).

Part I. The Life, Times and Achievements of John Lindley, 1799-1865 - William T. Stearn. (45 pages)

Contains an account of Lindley's childhood, botanical career and his wide range of horticultural, administrative, academic and advisory roles. Sections are devoted to each of his major publications, the various artists who illustrated these works, and his roles with the Horticultural Society, Chelsea Physic Garden and the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew.

One and a half pages deal directly with Lindley's contribution to Australian botany. In it is briefly covered Lindley's identifications for Mitchell's expeditions into the interiors of eastern Australia (Three Expeditions..., 1838, 9) and tropical Australia (Journal of an Expedition..., 1848), as well as his Sketch of the Vegetation of the Swan River Colony (1839-40). It is interesting to consider Stearn's comment that after 1848 Lindley "never again tackled such general floristic research". The part ends with a consideration of his contribution to orchid taxonomy, the number of generic (3) and specific (136) names commemorating Lindley and the fate of his library and collections after he died in 1865.

Part II. An introductory lecture delivered in the University of London, April 30, 1829 - John Lindley. (16 pages)

Lindley had been appointed as foundation Professor of Botany in the previous year but this was his inaugural lecture, attended not only by students, but it seems, notaries and friends such as Robert Brown.

The lecture provided a comprehensive overview of the science of botany as it was understood then, starting with a consideration of its history, both ancient and recent. Given at a time when natural systems had gained precedence over earlier artificial systems of classification, it contains a critique of the Linnean system as "a positive and serious evil" while feting de Jussieu's approach in Genera Plantarum as "the second great step ... towards the establishment of Botany upon sound philosophical principles". The first, of course, was Linnaeus! Later he refines his feelings for the Linnean system - "I do not object to it because it is artificial ... but because it is superficial".

Other remarks of interest include his definition of systematists and why their 'race' arose, his criteria for a 'perfect' system of Natural History, and his concluding remark that botany "is a kind of knowledge which no person who wishes to receive a finished education can dispense with".

Part III. Botany and Medicine. Address delivered at the commencement of the Medical Session 1834-5, University of London on 1 October, 1834 - John Lindley. (17 pages)

This lecture, given to medical students, outlined the role of botany in medicine and gave Lindley the chance to present many examples illustrating the practical importance of the study of botany.

Part IV. Lindley's life-long love affair with orchids - Phillip Cribb. (15 pages)

Lindley's interest in the Orchidaceae is documented here as beginning in 1821. His 7000-strong herbarium, amassed through a global network of collectors, and now held at Kew, helped him to "corner the market" on orchid expertise and information. Cribb summarises Lindley's work on the description, classification, illustration and cultivation of orchids which saw him come to dominate the horticulture and systematics of the group for over forty years.

Part V. Lindley as a horticulturalist - Christopher D. Brickell. (17 pages)

John Lindley came from a family of Norwich nurserymen, on leaving school he spent time in Belgium collecting plants and seed, and by the age of 23 he had begun his life-long association with the Royal Horticultural Society. So horticulture was a constant thread in Lindley's life, culminating in the publication of his Theory and Practice of Horticulture in 1855. Brickell goes on to document Lindley's role in education and the influential report which helped see the Royal Gardens at Kew become a public institution with a renewed focus on science based around a herbarium, library and an actively expanding living collection.

Part VI. Lindley and Hutton's 'Fossil Flora of Great Britain' - William G. Chaloner. (15 pages)

In 1829 Lindley devoted around one tenth of his introductory lecture (see Part II) to the key role palaeobotany (then very much a fledgling science) could play in the field of geology. "And what a glorious field for inquiry! What an object for scientific ambition to strike at!" he somewhat breathlessly exclaimed.

In the same year he embarked on writing The Fossil Flora of Great Britain with William Hutton, a geologist working in the Newcastle (UK) coal fields, a work which appeared in three volumes over the next eight years. It consisted primarily of drawings of fossil plants from the Carboniferous and Middle Jurassic, with Lindley preparing the new names, descriptions and notes on affinity.

Due perhaps to his many other commitments it appears Lindley struggled to complete the third volume and, according to Chaloner, was so disenchanted with the subject that within a month of completing the work he had "sent away" all related documents and was selling off his books on the subject!

Chaloner makes it clear that these volumes were a great contribution to the field for which the authors pioneered new techniques in the examination of compression fossils, regretting however, that they were not taken up by others for "nearly a century".

Part VII. The Lindley Library and John Lindley's Library - Brent Elliott. (16 pages)

The current Librarian of the RHS' Lindley Library documents in some detail the loss of the original Lindley Library during the Societies financial difficulties in the 1850's, as well as the cataloguing, Contents and subjects of Lindley's personal library.

Part VIII. Lindley documents in the British Columbia Archives - Kathryn Bridge. (2 pages)

This brief section outlines the nature of the family documentation kept by Lindley's eldest daughter Sarah and eventually deposited in the Archives of British Columbia in Victoria, Canada, to be unearthed in 1994. The archivist there and author of this part, Ms Bridge has also written the biography of Sarah Crease (nee Lindley).

Part IX. The Lindley Medal of the Royal Horticultural Society - William L. Tjaden. (4 pages)

A short account of the striking of a medal in memory of Lindley's forty years of service to the Society and awarded by the RHS for exhibitions of special scientific or horticultural interest.

Part X. List of the Published Works of John Lindley - J.M. Allford. (23 pages)

A comprehensive annotated list of Lindley's publications, originally compiled by Miss Allford in 1953 but amended by Stearn to include certain publication dates unknown at the time. Listed publications span the years 1819 - 1877, include 238 items organised by publication year, and run to 23 pages including a separate index.

As for the rest of the work, the colour plates are largely of orchids, and most are colour lithographs by Miss S.A. Drake, a small number are by Lindley himself, and one or two each by various artists including W.J. Hooker. Two of the plates are portraits of Lindley at ages 35 and 63 by C. Fox and E.U. Eddis, respectively.

Perhaps most intriguing is plate 20, an example of type sheets from the Lindley herbarium at Kew where the specimen is mounted directly onto one of these remarkable illustrations. Finally, the end-papers are taken from four of the colour plates within, making the volume attractive for those with an eye for orchids or excellence in botanical illustration.

This biography of John Lindley is well-conceived and researched and summarises in a reasonable length the major threads of a full life spent in the pursuit of the precise and scientific synthesis of botanical taxonomy, horticulture and education. A worthy addition to any botanical library and a rewarding and informative read, it will sit well next to the biographies of his peers from this near-legendary period in the history of botany.


Brown, R. (1810). Prodromus Florae Novae Hollandiae et Insulae van Deimen. London: Johnson.

Mabberley, D.J. (1985). Jupiter Botanicus. Robert Brown of the British Museum. J. Cramer, Braunschweig.

Reviewer: Alex R. Chapman
Research Scientist
Western Australian Herbarium
(currently ABLO, RBG Kew)