ashmolean

Ex Uno Omnia
Everything Out of One

A Student Engagement Project at the Ashmolean Museum, 2014

Katherine French

Botany in 17th Century Oxford

Over 60 different species of plants are depicted on the Gibbons frame, including a number of orchard fruits (peaches, pears, currants), a variety of wild flowers (buttercups, field poppies, crowfoot), and a few foreign plants (Freesia, Tulip tree, Passionflower). Herbarium specimens from Oxfordshire, manuscripts from Oxford College libraries, archaeobotanical evidence from south-east England, and illustrations found in contemporary herbals, indicate many of these plants grew within Oxfordshire and were familiar to 17th century audiences viewing the frame. Indeed, at least one manuscript suggests apothecaries may have collected medicinal plants from the area (British Library, Sloane MS 1038)! According to John Tradescant the Younger’s Musæum Tradescantianum, these plants (as well as other ‘useful’ plants from around the world) were displayed in the Old Ashmolean. The collection catalogue of Jacob Bobart the Elder (Oxford Botanic Garden’s first caretaker) also shows that many of these also grew in the Oxford Botanic Garden. Together, both institutions contributed to the exchange of--and experimentation with--the botanical diversity of England, a legacy embedded in the fabric of the Gibbon’s Frame.

Botanical Species on the Gibbons Frame

The identification of the species on the Gibbons Frame were made using depictions of plants grown in England in the 17th century (as depicted in two common herbals of the day, including those by John Gerard and John Parkinson) and on pressed flower collections in the Oxford Fielding-Druce Herbarium. The similarity between the plants represented in contemporary herbals and the Gibbons Frame is striking and may suggest that Gibbons and other artists during this period were familiar with these contemporary depictions of local and foreign flora.

Images of Plants Displayed on the Gibbons Frame from Parkinson’s Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris (Park-in-Sun's Terrestrial Paradise, 1629).
Left to Right: Buttercup (Ranunculus sp.); Autumn Crocus (Colchicum autumnale); Lilies from Constantinople (Lilium martagon sp.) ; Lily of the Valley (Lilium convalium).

Despite the availability of the aforementioned reference sources, there are a number of difficulties in identifying the botanical species on the frame. The most significant is the lack of “complete” botanical specimens. Although a flower or fruit may be represented, the leaves of the same plant are often not included. Many of the small wild flowers represented on the frame could only be taken to genus level due to the lack of identifying features (i.e. accompanying leaves, internal reproductive parts). In addition, some species from the same family, like apricot and plumb (both from the same genus, Prunus), are very similar in terms of size and appearance and without the actual botanical specimen at hand, it is difficult to separate the two. Despite these drawbacks, the Gibbon’s Frame contains at least 50 species of plants. Many of these, including peony, poppy, and buttercups, were on display at the Old Ashmolean alongside other more exotic species like the shrub Hartwort of Ethiopia (Bupleurum fruticosum L.) and the Hungarian figwort (Scrophularia vernalis L.). In this way, the frame evokes and mirrors the physical context in which visitors initially encountered the frame, a context marked by the discovery, collection, and display of botanical specimens.