Nature in demand

Museum botanist Sandy Knapp discusses the role the John Reeves collection played in documenting the natural world in the 1800s. It was as important to the study of natural history as modern data collecting and imaging techniques are today, and it continues to provide information vital to scientists in these modern times.

Turmeric, Curcuma longa

Turmeric, Curcuma longa. Watercolour from the John Reeves collection, c1817-1824. The image includes detail of the root and an individual flower.

There was great demand for information about natural history in Europe in the early 1800s.

Scientists and naturalists were keen to find out about species living throughout Asia. Traders were interested in products for commercial reasons and botanical and private gardens such Kew Gardens and the Horticultural Society of London were on the look out for all variety of exotic plants.

Because of this demand and his location in the Canton ports, Reeves was able to collect an incredible cross-section of specimens, not only from the gardens and markets of Canton but also from the interior of China as well as from all over Asia.

Reeves sent specimens back to Britain by sea but the lengthy ocean voyages often damaged or destroyed them despite the ingenious methods he used to protect them, for example installing mini-glasshouses on tea-clippers and encasing seeds in wax to avoid spoilage. Paintings and illustrations were far better at surviving the journey.

Mangrove fan palm watercolour from the John Reeves collection

Mangrove fan palm, Licuala spinosa. Watercolour from the John Reeves collection, 1812-1824.

Reeves instructed the local artists he commissioned in the conventions of Western scientific illustration. For example, as well as painting a whole plant on a white background, the artist would often dissect parts of the specimen such as the fruit or flower and add details of these and other areas of particular interest. 

These paintings proved to be invaluable in recording and communicating information about species.