JOHN LINDLEY (1799-1865)

John Lindley FRS (5 February 1799 – 1 November 1865) was an English botanist, gardener and orchidologist, who lived and died at Bedford House, The Avenue, Acton Green, W4 2PJ.

At the time he lived in Chiswick, the Horticultural Society (later the Royal Horticultural Society) had its nursery gardens here.

‘This little patch, 30 acres in Chiswick, was the most important place in the world for gardening. The East India company sent people off to get new samples and gardeners in Chiswick had to work out whether they were able to grow here.’ Fiona Davison, Head of Libraries and Exhibitions for the RHS.

As the Society’s assistant secretary, Lindley supervised the collection of plants. It was a tremedously exciting time for the development of horticulture and the realisation of the commercial potential of the exotic plants being brought back from Britain’s colonies. Gardening, or rather collecting exotic plants for your gardeners to look after, was very much the in thing.

John Lindley grew up in Norfolk, the son of a nurseryman who ran a commercial nursery garden. The family did not have enough money to send their son to university or to buy him a commission in the army, so when he was 16 he became an agent for a London seed merchant.

He got to know the botanist William Jackson Hooker (later to become the first director of the Botanic Gardens at Kew under state ownership), who let him use his botanical library and introduced him to Sir Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society and patron of the natural sciences.

Lindley was employed by Banks as an assistant in his herbarium. He published the Monographia Rosarum, “A Botanical History of Roses” in 1820, which distinguished 76 species, including 13 new ones, illustrated by his own paintings.

Images above: Monographia Rosarum and two of the rose illunstrations from it

He got to know Joseph Sabine, Secretary of the Horticultural Society of London and William Cattley, a wealthy merchant who paid for him to draw and describe the new plants in his garden. Cattley also paid for the publication of Lindley’s Digitalia Monographia, on species of foxgloves.

Lindley was successful at a very young age, elected a fellow of the prestigious Linnean Society of London (a natural history society called after Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish scientist who created the modern system of naming organisms) at the age of 21.

He was appointed assistant secretary to the Horticultural Society in Chiswick two years later, to supervise the collection of plants, and appointed to the chair of botany at the newly established University College, London at the age of 30, a post he held until 1860.

Lindley was the author of a number publications on plants, including Collectanea botanicaFigures and botanic Illustrations of rare and curious exotic Plants and A Synopsis of British Flora, in which he argued for a more ‘natural’ classification of plants.

With fellow botanist John Claudius he put together the Encyclopedia of Plants, which covered nearly fifteen thousand species of flowering plants and ferns.

He was instrumental in saving Kew Gardens for the public, bending the ear of the Prime Minister about the importance of the botanic gardens when it looked like the Gardens, then owned by the royal family, might be quietly abandoned.

Images above: Illustrations from The Genera and Species of Orchidaceous Plants

He became interested in orchids early on in his career and they became his lifelong passion. Orchids were new to Europeans at that time. The Genera and Species of Orchidaceous Plants took him ten years to write and made him the leading authority on the classification of orchids. He identified, named and described more than 100 genera.

He died at his home at Acton Green aged 66. He was survived by his wife, two daughters and a son. The daughters followed in his footsteps as accomplished artists. His son, a lawyer, went on to become Master of the Rolls and a life peer.

See who else in Chiswick has merited a blue plaque and view a map of where they all are here.

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See also: Chiswick gardens ‘most important in UK’ – Royal Horticultural Society gardens

See also: Palace of Palms – The story of the Palm House at Kew

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