"The Oldie is an incredible magazine - perhaps the best magazine in the world right now" Graydon Carter, founder of Air Mail and former Editor of Vanity Fair

Subscribe to the Oldie and get a free cartoon book


Floral queen - the latest show at Badminton. By the Duchess of Beaufort

Features | By The Duchess of Beaufort

1st Duchess of Beaufort (far right, as a girl) by Cornelius Johnson, 1641.

In 1703, the 1st Duchess of Beaufort, a botanist, commissioned a flower album. The current Duchess of Beaufort is now showing it at Badminton

In 1703, Mary Somerset (1630-1715), the 1st Duchess of Beaufort, commissioned Everard Kik,a Dutch botanical artist, to create a series of paintings showing the extraordinary variety of plants she had grown from seeds sent to her from all over the world.

The final collection of 178 botanical paintings, including many by Mary’s footman-turned- artist Daniel Frankcom, were later bound in a two-volume album, a florilegium. It is kept at Badminton House, Gloucestershire, where Mary lived and grew many of her plants.

The florilegium has remained at Badminton for more than 300 years and the paintings have rarely been seen publicly. When my husband and I moved into Badminton six years ago, I was aware of the existence of the florilegium, mainly as a result of a 1983 book that contained a selection of reproductions.

In recent times, the albums themselves have always been stored in the Oak Room, a summer drawing room which was once oak-panelled and is generally kept cool and shuttered. As a result, somewhat by accident, this remarkable collection has been preserved in a perfect environment.

My interest in the paintings and the 1st Duchess was sparked by a PhD student, India Cole. She was working on a thesis, originally about Jacob Bobart the Younger, the superintendent of the Oxford Physic Garden, but was soon drawn to studying Mary herself.

Bobart and Mary would regularly send each other seeds and plant samples. The physician and naturalist Sir Hans Sloane wrote that the gardens at Badminton ‘come to Perfection, flower and produce their ripe Fruits, even to my Admiration . . . by the Direction of her Grace the Duchess of Beaufort’.

After Mary’s death, Sloane was bequeathed her herbarium – a 14-volume collection of pressed plants.

The exceptionally well-preserved aloes, as well as garden flowers such as tulips, anemones and geraniums are now stored at the Natural History Museum, alongside the dried botanical specimens collected by Joseph Banks, the naturalist who circumnavigated the globe on Cook’s Endeavour. The 1st Duchess of Beaufort was engaging not in fanciful decorative projects but in serious scientific pursuits.

She was born Mary Capel in 1630, the daughter of Arthur, Lord Capel, the loyal cavalier condemned to death by Parliament and beheaded after escaping from the Tower of London in 1649. She married Henry Seymour, Lord Beauchamp, at 18 and bore him a son and a daughter. He died in 1654, having also been imprisoned in the Tower.

Three years later, Mary married Henry Somerset, Lord Herbert, later the 1st Duke of Beaufort. She bore him seven more children.

As châtelaine of Badminton House and Beaufort House in London, Mary was much occupied by her domestic duties, including attending to her gardens. By the 1690s, however, she was considered a respected botanist and horticulturalist.

Her scientific interests began in the 1670s and were driven by her exploration of the medical uses of plants.

She suffered from ‘melancholy’ and, seeking a treatment for it, she devised a recipe for Melancholy Water, ‘to comfort the heart, to quicken the spirits, to provoke sleepe’. Over the years, she acquired an understanding of botany that equalled, and sometimes surpassed, that of the men in scientific circles with whom she would exchange plants and seeds.

She was sent seeds from Africa, China, and the West Indies. In 1696, she acquired a shipment of seeds, cuttings and even several large trees – including a mangrove tree – from Barbados.

But it was not until after the death of her second husband that Mary embarked on her artistic project – a painterly but scientifically accurate record of many of the plants in her gardens, stovehouses and conservatories. The plants depicted include pelargoniums, sunflowers, passion flowers and guavas.

She produced the first known specimen of guava to be grown in England, ripened in the early-18th-century orangery at Badminton, where we overwinter our agapanthus (grown by Mary and depicted in the florilegium).

The second album also has paintings of insects. The early-18th-century botanist Richard Bradley commented that Mary ‘bred a greater Variety of English Insects, than were ever rightly observ’d by any one Person in Europe’.

Her botanical legacy continues in the gardens and glasshouses at Badminton today. ‘When I get into storys of plants,’ she wrote, ‘I know not how to get out.’

A Garden of Botanical Art: Paintings from the Collection of Mary Somerset, the 1st Duchess of Beaufort is at Badminton House, Gloucestershire (16th-23rd June and 8th-15th September)

Sunflower page from her florilegium

This story was from July 2024 issue. Subscribe Now