The Collectors: Tradescants

John Tradescant the Elder (1570-1638) is recorded as a 'gardener' on his marriage certificate. It is believed the Tradescant family may have originated in Suffolk, possibly the parish of Walberswick. His first appointment was to the Earl of Salisbury's estate in Hertfordshire. His second appointment was to the second Earl of Salisbury at his house in The Strand.

By 1615 he had moved on to a garden at St. Augustine's Palace at Canterbury owned by Lord Wotton.

His various contacts enabled him a number of opportunities to travel abroad. In 1618 he visited Muscovy, where he collected curios such as an abacus, as well as the botanic specimens. The white helebore and purple crane's bill are two plants from that journey. In 1621 he visited Tangier, again collecting curios as well as plants and flowers. The Algiers Apricot is one such specimen introduced to England.

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John Tradescant the Elder by de Neve

John Tradescant the Elder by Cornelis de Neve

He then moved to the household of George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham in 1623, who was very indulgant to his suggestions. He visited the Low Countries to collect the trees for Buckingham's parks. In 1628 the Duke was assassinated on a fateful mission to the Ile de Re and Tradescant was left unemployed. It was at this time that he purchased the house at Lambeth. He installed his family and the 'rarities' he had acquired and planted his garden of exotic plants. He wrote letters to the sea captains, ambassadors and merchants asking them to acquire natural and man-made rarities from the places they travelled to. These were to be added to his own collections to form the basis for his 'museum', The Ark. In 1630 Charles I appointed him Keeper of His Majesty's Gardens, Vines and Silkworms at Oatlands Palace in Surrey. In 1637 his final appointment was as curator of the newly founded Physic Garden at Oxford. No records survive of his time at the Physic Garden. He died that year, and was buried in the churchyard of St. Mary's at Lambeth.

At the time of John Tradescant the elder's death, his son, also John, was in Virginia, America, gathering 'rarities of flowers, plants, shells etc' - a natural successor to his father. He collected, amongst other things, tomahawks from north-east America, still in the Tradescant collection today.

John the Younger (1608-1662) was born at Meopham, his grandparent's home and attended King's School in Canterbury. He married young and had a daughter, Frances, and a son, another John, who unfortunately died aged 19. In 1634, after a period of apprenticeship, he became a Freeman of the Worshipful Company of Gardeners. His wife Jane, also died that year. In 1637 he made the first of three voyages to Virginia. Upon his return to England in 1638 he became 'Keeper of his Majesty's Gardens, Vines and Silkworks' at Oatlands Palace, where his father had been employed. He married again in 1638 to Hester Pookes, who was related to the de Critz family of painters, who were to paint a series of portraits of the Tradescant family. The paintings form part of the Tradescant gallery.

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John Tradescant the Younger

John Tradescant the Younger possibly by Thomas de Critz

Elias Ashmole had been acquainted with the Tradescant family since 1650. Ashmole and his wife, with Dr. Thomas Wharton, visited John Tradescant and together they prepared a catalogue of the museum and gardens at Lambeth.

In 1656, the catalogue of the Tradescant collection was printed, including a record of the contents of the Ark and its adjacent garden. This was funded by Elias Ashmole and was the first of its kind to be published in Britain. It was titled Musaeum Tradescantianum.

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