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John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute (1713-1792): Bute's Botanical Tables

Portrait of the Third Earl of Bute
Portrait of the Third Earl of Bute (reproduced from Temple of Flora (1807) by Robert Thornton).
The museum’s copy of Bute’s <em>Botanical Tables</em>.
The museum’s copy of Bute’s Botanical Tables.

2013 is the birth tercentenary of the Third Earl of Bute, a powerful figure in eighteenth century Britain – renowned both as a politician and as a botanist. One of his greatest contributions to botany was a book called the Botanical Tables, and Amgueddfa Cymru is fortunate to own a complete set of this rare and exquisite publication.

John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute (1713-1792) was a friend and confidante of George III. Early in his career Bute reluctantly became a politician, encouraged by his royal friend. In May 1762, he was appointed Prime Minister. However, Bute proved an unpopular leader and resigned after a year. He must have been relieved to retire from public life to his house at Highcliffe in Hampshire, with his vast botanical library, to continue his botanical interests.

Carl Linnaeus's new taxonomic system

Bute worked on several botanical publications and was strongly influenced by the renowned Swedish taxonomist Carl Linnaeus. Bute's best known publication was entitled Botanical Tables, or to give it its full title; Botanical Tables containing the different familys of British Plants distinguished by a few obvious parts of Fructification rang'd in a Synoptical method. Published in 1785, the aim of the Tables was to explain the principles of Linnaeus's new and controversial taxonomic system.

Most of the illustrations in the Botanical Tables were by the artist John Miller (1715-1790). It was a huge task, involving over 600 illustrations detailing the sexual organs and their number to comply with the Linnaean system. Each set of Tables consists of 9 volumes covering the whole range of British plant life - including mosses, grasses, flowers and trees, as well as lichens, fungi and seaweeds - and contains detailed illustrations of every plant listed.

Twelve sets of the Tables were printed by Lord Bute at his own expense, at a total cost of £1,000. Most sets were bound in speckled fawn calf leather with the Bute coat of arms placed centrally. Two sets were specially prepared for the royal family and bound in red goatskin with pages edged in gold but without the Bute arms.

Botany as a fashionable amusement

Bute was particularly keen to explain the taxonomic system to women, since he felt that this "delightful part of nature" was peculiarly suited to the attention of the "fair sex"; botany, under their protection, would soon become a fashionable amusement. True to this aim Bute presented seven sets of the Tables to women:

  • Queen Charlotte (wife of King George III),
  • Catherine II (Empress of Russia),
  • The Duchess of Portland,
  • Mrs Jane Barrington,
  • Lady Elizabeth (Betty) Mackenzie,
  • Lady Anne Ruthven
  • Lady Jane Macartney.

The latter three of these were family members. Bute kept two sets for himself and sent one set each to the eminent British botanist and later President of the Royal Society Joseph Banks (1743-1829), the eminent French botanist George Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-1788) and Bute's old friend Louis Dutens (1730-1812).

Amgueddfa Cymru has in its collections loose illustrations and tables that are thought either to have been draft copies or material being prepared for a subsequent edition. However, in 1994 the Museum acquired a complete copy of the Botanical Tables at a Christie's sale of highly important books from Beriah Botfield's Library.

Whilst trying to ascertain which of the original 12 sets the Museum holds, researchers here have managed to trace 10 sets, 7 of which can be identified with their original recipients.

Perhaps, one day, the remaining two will be discovered on a dusty shelf of an old library and then all twelve original copies can be accounted for.

Article by: Heather Pardoe a Maureen Lazarus

References

Lazarus, M. H. & Pardoe, H. S. (eds) 2003. Catalogue of Botanical Prints and Drawings held by the National Museums & Galleries of Wales. National Museums & Galleries of Wales, Cardiff, 319 pp.

Lazarus, M. H. & Pardoe, H. S. 2009. Bute's Botanical tables: dictated by Nature. Archives of natural history 36 (2): 277–298.

Lazarus, M. H. & Pardoe, H. S. (in prep.) Bute's Botanical Tables (1785). Luton Hoo Tercentenary Special Publication

Recipients

The recipients of the twelve copies of the Botanic Tables:

  1. Queen Charlotte (wife of King George III), [Red Goatskin bound copy]
  2. Catherine II (Empress of Russia), [Red Goatskin bound copy]
  3. The Duchess of Portland,
  4. Mrs Jane Barrington,
  5. Lady Elizabeth (Betty) Mackenzie, family member
  6. Lady Anne Ruthven, family member
  7. Lady Jane Macartney, family member
  8. Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1829)
  9. George Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-1788)
  10. Louis Dutens (1730-1812)
  11. Retained by Third Earl of Bute
  12. Retained by Third Earl of Bute

Article Date: 30 September 2013

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