John Clayton (1694-1773) was one of the early collectors of plant specimens in Virginia, where he was Clerk to the County Court of Gloucester County from 1720 until his death 53 years later. Although he published almost nothing himself, Clayton's specimens have considerable nomenclatural importance as, having reached Europe and the hands of J.F. Gronovius (1690-1762) by 1735, many of them were studied by the Swedish biologist Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778) and were among the earliest North American specimens that he had seen.
'Clayton began sending to Gronovius large numbers of dried plant specimens for identification as early as 1735, if not earlier. These plants, many of which were unknown, could not have reached him at a more auspicious time. On August 30, 1735, Gronovius wrote to his English friend, Dr. Richard Richardson: "You will remember that at the time you arrived here in town, you met at Mr. Lawson's a gentleman from Sweden, that went the same night to Amsterdam, where he is printing his Bibliothecam Botanicum. His name is Carolus Linnaeus..." ' Berkeley and Berkeley (1963: 58).
Without Clayton's knowledge, Gronovius prepared and published a Flora Virginica (1739-1743), based on a manuscript of Clayton's and his specimens. When, in his monumental Species Plantarum (1753), Linnaeus introduced the consistent use of binomial nomenclature, his knowledge of North American species was based heavily on Clayton's specimens, along with those of his own student, Pehr Kalm (1716-1779). Consequently, many of Clayton's specimens are types of Linnaean names.
Although Linnaeus obtained some duplicates of Clayton's specimens, now to be found in Linnaeus's own herbarium at the Linnean Society of London, the specimens that Gronovius had studied were bought in 1794 by Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820), the naturalist who travelled with Captain Cook. They subsequently passed, with the rest of Banks's collections, to the British Museum (Natural History) - now The Natural History Museum, in London. Until recently, the specimens were dispersed through the main collection. However, increasing interest in Clayton's plants recently led to the specimens being extracted and curated as a separate collection so that they could be studied more easily.
As potential type specimens for Linnaean names, they are of interest to the Linnaean Plant Name Typification Project, based at this Museum, and have also been a major focus for studies of the early botanical exploration of North America, notably by Professor James Reveal (University of Maryland). In 1993, thirty of Clayton's sheets formed part of an exhibition organised by Dr Norlyn Bodkin at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, generating considerable interest. This display subsequently travelled to Colonial Williamsburg and the Chicago Field Museum.
As historically important collections, they are not normally available for loan but the interest in them has encouraged us to make images of them available as a pilot project for herbarium specimens from The Natural History Museum's collections.