By Judith Magee, Special Collections Curator
William Bartram (1739-1823) was the son of the Quaker farmer and nurseryman John Bartram (1699-1777), who established a botanical garden at his home in Kingsessing, some four miles from Philadelphia. For many years John traded packets of seed of American plants to customers all over Europe and was responsible for introducing up to a third of North American plants to Europe during his lifetime. William, like his father, became an excellent botanist and plant collector. He was also a very skilled artist and many of Bartram’s drawings portray the plants and animals in context, showing the inter-relationship and dependency between species and the habitat in which they lived; a depiction quite different from that of most natural history artists of the day.
Between the years 1773 –1777 William travelled through the Carolinas, Georgia and East and West Florida as far as the Mississippi River. He collected plants and seed, wrote a journal and completed drawings for his patron John Fothergill (1712-1780), a London physician. On his return to Philadelphia Bartram wrote his now famous work Travels through North & South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, published in 1791. The importance of this work is manifold, not least the influence it had on the Romantic poets of Europe. Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth are just two of the many poets who were influenced by Bartram’s book. The poetic imagery evoked in his writings and his rhapsodic language found its way into many well-known poems. Bartram viewed the earth as an organic whole, a living unity of diverse and interdependent life forms and it was this understanding of nature that also made him so attractive to the Romantic poets.
Bartram was also a significant influence in shaping science in America in the post-revolutionary era. The process of nation building and eradicating American dependence on Europe was reflected in the struggle for an American cultural and scientific identity. The study of natural science was seen as a patriotic act in which Americans themselves were discovering their natural products, identifying, classifying, describing and naming these species, in short stamping American control over their subject. William Bartram was very conscious of this and during his lifetime gave inspiration and encouragement to a long list of young American scientists.
Today Bartram’s Travels remains in print and continues to be read by practitioners of all disciplines of natural history and the arts. A large portion of his book is devoted to describing the lifestyle and culture of the Native Americans of the region that he travelled through. His writings are amongst the very few that give first-hand knowledge of the subject. His own experiences during his travels led him to develop a great admiration of the Creek and Cherokee Nations lifestyle and particularly their relationship with nature.
The Bartram collection is made up of 68 drawings most of which were sent to John Fothergill between 1772 and 1776. Fothergill’s library, including all his artwork, was auctioned after his death in 1780. A number of lots were purchased by Sir Joseph Banks including the Bartram material and were given the Banks Mss. number of 23.
Magee, Judith (2007) The art and science of William Bartram, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press in association with the Natural History Museum.