Makers of British botany/John Lindley 1799—1865

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Rise of Systematic Botany—Lindley's place—early history—services to Horticulture—Professor at University College, London—The Gardeners' ChronicleTheory and Practice of HorticultureThe Vegetable Kingdom—Orchids—his interest in Fossil Botany—personal characteristics.


The first half of the 19th century is a brilliant epoch in the history of botanical discovery. During that period the foundations of plant-anatomy were laid afresh with the cell as the builders' material. The discovery of sarcode or protoplasm electrified the scientific world and excited the attention of the philosophical novelist—as readers of Middlemarch may remember. The nucleus, the only and true deus ex machina of many a modern botanist, was recognised as an organ of the cell.

Biochemistry came into being and, with Liebig as foster-parent, grew into modern Physiology. The natural system of classification proclaimed by Jussieu put to rout the old established Linnean system and the enunciation of the theory of Natural Selection brought the epoch to a dramatic close.

In the constructive work of this period British botanists played a distinguished part, and it was due preeminently to them that the transition from the old artificial system to the new natural system took place so speedily and completely.

The group of men to whose labours this great change was due include Hooker, Brown, Bentham and the subject of this sketch, John Lindley. Nor from this brief list may the name

Plate XIV

Makers of British botany, Plate 14 (John Lindley).png


of Sir Joseph Banks, "the greatest Englishman of his time," be omitted.

The commanding position to which these men attained in the world of science was of course due, primarily, to their ability and—equally of course—to circumstance. The great wars were over and in the peaceful years men were free to turn their energy to constructive purposes. Horticulture—ever a British art—became unreservedly popular. Explorers and collectors, encouraged and assisted by Banks and others, sent home rich supplies of new or rare plants and thus provided British systematists with a vast array of material for their work of reconstructing the flora of the world. Such brilliant use was made of opportunity that our country took the lead in systematic botany.

The activity of the collector, the generosity of the patron and the labour of the systematist led not only to a general advance in methods of classification but also to a very special advance in the knowledge of what is, in many ways, the most interesting group of plants on the face of the earth—the Orchidaceae. Among the plant-treasure from India, Australia and Malaya were large numbers of epiphytic orchids. The problem of cultivating such strange and fascinating plants challenged the skill of the gardener. The "fancying" instinct, latent in every Englishman and curiously characteristic of the race, was evoked by the bizarre form of these plants. Orchid-growing became the hobby of the well-to-do. Gardeners with no knowledge of science and regardless of text-book dicta on sterility, proceeded to raise the most marvellous series of hybrids—bi-generic, tri-generic, multi-generic—which any sane and scholastic botanist would have declared to be impossible.

Brown, Blume and above all Lindley threw themselves with enthusiasm into the task of discovering the clues to the classification of these plants, the form of whose flowers transgress so glaringly the rules of morphology—dimly surmising perhaps that if the key to evolution is ever to be found it will be discovered by the study of the group of plants which appear to represent evolution's latest prank.

In building up the new system of classification of the vegetable kingdom in general and of orchids in particular, Lindley bore a conspicuous part; and were these his only contributions to the advancement of botanical science, his biographer might find the task of writing his life one of no very great difficulty. When however he discovers the many other varied aspects of Lindley's activities, the biographer may well despair of presenting a fair picture of the scientific life of this remarkable man. Professor of Botany in University College, London, "Præfectus Horti" to the Society of Apothecaries, officially attached to the Royal Horticultural Society and responsible for the management of its gardens, and in no small measure for its very existence, Lindley yet found time to become easily the greatest scientific journalist of his age. For nearly 25 years he edited the Gardeners' Chronicle and did more than any other man to keep the science and practice of horticulture on good terms with one another. To those of us who know how generally the cares of organisation give excuse for slackness in research, Lindley's indomitable activity, both in administration and in investigation, becomes indeed impressive and inspiring. Lecturing, drawing and describing new genera and species, revising the vegetable kingdom, writing memoirs, text-books, articles, directing the gardens at Chiswick, fighting officialdom and obstruction, building up a great herbarium and discharging a dozen other duties would seem to have made up the daily life of this man of amazing vigour. Till he was 50 years of age Lindley never knew what it was to feel fatigue; at 52 he took his first holiday; but the continuous strain of half a century had exhausted him beyond recuperation. He rallied, set to work again, again broke down and died at the age of 67.

To sketch in rapid outline and to admire to the full, John Lindley's life is not difficult even to the modern botanist whose life is passed in the cloistered calm of the laboratory; but to give a discriminating account of the chief of Lindley's services to science is well-nigh impossible for any one man: certainly I could not have undertaken it unaided. Good fortune and friends however rendered the attempt unnecessary. In the first place, Lord Lindley, when he knew of this project, put at my disposal in the kindest manner possible an outline of John Lindley's career which he had written under the title of "Sketch of my Father's Life: written for my sons, daughters and grand-children." In what follows I have made free use of Lord Lindley's manuscript. In the second place, Mr W. Botting Hemsley has had the great kindness not only to supply me with much valuable information of which he was possessed concerning Lindley's scientific work but to examine manuscripts, letters, etc. at Kew bearing thereon and to allow me to make use of the results of his interesting investigations.

Hence my task has become merely that of an editor whose chief duty is to fit the material provided by two distinguished contributors into the prescribed space. Whatever credit is due to this first attempt to sketch the career of Lindley, belongs to these two gentlemen whose remarkable kindness I have great pleasure in acknowledging.

Outline of Career.

John Lindley was born on February 5, 1799, in Catton near Norwich. His father, George Lindley, who came of an old Yorkshire family, conducted a large nursery and fruit business in Catton. To the facts that John Lindley became in early years an accomplished field botanist and also learned much of practical horticulture may be ascribed the close touch which he maintained throughout his botanical career with the practical side of botany. It is not too much to say that John Lindley was the unique representative of a class of man which he himself declared had never existed, namely one which combined the qualities of a good physiologist with those of a practical gardener of the greatest experience. John Lindley's youthful ambition was however to be not a savant but a soldier, and though, owing to the inability of his father to buy him a commission, that ambition was not fulfilled, the instinct which prompted it found frequent expression throughout Lindley's life. As his career demonstrates, he was a first class fighting man. The curious may find in the pages of the Gardeners' Chronicle records of the combats which he waged on behalf of horticulture and we shall have occasion presently to refer to the most important of all his campaigns in the cause of science.

When John Lindley was about 19 or 20 years of age his father's affairs became involved, and the son with an impulsiveness as just as it was foolish insisted, against the advice of friends, on becoming surety for the father. The mill-stone of financial anxiety thus early hung about his neck caused him trouble throughout his life.

Possessed of nothing but youth, a sound education, great natural ability and one good friend, John Lindley at the age of 20 left Norfolk for London. Thanks to a letter of introduction from the friend (Sir William Hooker) he obtained a post as assistant-librarian to Sir Joseph Banks. He thus gained access to a good library and became acquainted with a large number of men, both English and foreign, interested in scientific subjects. That he made the most of his opportunities is evident, for we find him at 21 a Fellow of the Linnean Society and a member of the Bonn Academy of Natural History. In 1822 began Lindley's long connection with the Horticultural Society, which he served first as Garden Assistant-Secretary, then (1826–1860) as Assistant-Secretary and finally as Secretary.

The portrait which accompanies this sketch is a reproduction of that painted by Mr Eddis, R.A., at the instance of friends of Lindley about the time of his resignation of the Secretaryship of the Horticultural Society.

The most conspicuous direct services rendered by Lindley to the Society were the laying out of the Society's garden at Chiswick and the organisation, with Bentham, of the celebrated flower-shows which have served as models for the exhibits of horticultural societies all over the world. Those who know how extraordinarily valuable, not only to horticulturists but also to botanists, are the periodical "shows" held by the Royal Horticultural Society, will be grateful to Lindley for the perspicuity which led him to replace the old and gaudy "fêtes" by these admirable exhibitions.

Lindley's Professorship of Botany in University College, London, dates from 1828 and was held for over a quarter of a century. Among those who attended his lectures were Carpenter, Edwin Lankester, Griffith, Daubeny and Williamson. His lectureship to the Society of Apothecaries began in 1835, and in 1841 in which year the Gardeners' Chronicle was founded, he became editor of that periodical. This post he held till his death in 1865.

It might be supposed that the multifariousness and onerousness of Lindley's official and routine duties left little time for other work. Yet Lindley made time not only for scientific investigation and for the writing of numerous monographs and text-books; but also for a large and varied amount of public work. In the Lindley correspondence preserved at Kew are to be found letters and papers (official correspondence 1832–1854) criticising trenchantly the mismanagement of the Royal forests and recommendations on the selection and cultivation of trees for the charcoal employed in the manufacture of gunpowder.

Lindley, together with Hooker, acted as adviser to the Commissioners of the Admiralty with respect to the planting of the Island of Ascension.

The potato famine was the occasion of an official visit to Ireland and led to a report by Lindley, Sir Robert Kaye and Sir Lyon Playfair which was the immediate cause of the Repeal of the Corn Laws. As Sir Robert Peel told Lindley "in the face of the Report, the repeal could no longer be avoided." Thus the potato takes rank with the chance word, the common soldier, the girl at the door of an inn that have changed or almost changed the fate of nations.

Lindley and Kew.

But of all Lindley's public works that which he undertook for the saving of Kew from destruction is of the most immediate interest to botanists. In 1838 a small committee consisting of Lindley, Paxton and J. Wilson (gardener to the Earl of Surrey) were commissioned to report on the state of the Royal Gardens. After exposing the incompetence and extravagance of the then administration Lindley recommended that the Royal Gardens, Kew, should be made over to the nation and should become the headquarters of botanical science for England, its Colonies and Dependencies. Is it due to our lack of gratitude or to our mistrust of sculptors, that no statue of Lindley stands in the grounds of Kew? In 1840 John Lindley was able to write to Sir William Hooker: "It is rumoured that you are appointed to Kew. If so I shall have still more reason to rejoice at the determination I took to oppose the barbarous Treasury scheme of destroying the place; for I of course was aware that the stand I made and the opposition I created would destroy all possibility of my receiving any appointment." Having regard to the part which Lindley played in preserving Kew from the devastating clutches of the politicians it is but fit that that Institution should contain the most valuable of Lindley's scientific possessions, his orchid herbarium,—that his general herbarium is at Cambridge may be news to such Cambridge botanists as in the days of a decade or two ago learned Botany without such adventitious aids.

In 1864 Lindley wrote to the late Sir Joseph Hooker to say that he had made up his mind to sell his herbarium and would prefer that the Orchids went to Kew. There it is preserved, a monument of Lindley's skill and industry and of inestimable value to the systematist. Besides the actual specimens it contains coloured drawings of the flowers of all the species that came under his observation in the living state. In addition to the herbarium, Kew possesses a large amount of Lindley's scientific correspondence; letters to W. J. Hooker, 1828—1859 (230), 182 letters to Bentham and 35 to Henslow, and others to which reference has been made already: altogether an invaluable mass of correspondence, selections from which it is to be hoped may some day see the light of publication.

Lindley's skill with brush and pencil may be admired in the many plates which he executed in illustration of his various monographs. His skill with the pen deserves at least remark. Inasmuch however as nearly all the more distinguished of the old school of botanists, Hales, Hooker, Gray, to mention but a few, have in this respect a marked superiority over their successors, it is not necessary to labour the question of literary grace for either the moderns are indifferent on the subject or they may find on every hand models ready for their use. Two citations from the introductory pages of Lindley's classic, The Theory and Practice of Horticulture, must suffice to exemplify his incisive style—Le style c'est l'homme, and Lindley the man hated circumlocution and had no time to waste—"there are, doubtless, many men of cultivated or idle minds who think waiting upon Providence much better than any attempt to improve their condition by the exertion of their reasoning faculties. For such persons books are not written"; and again, with reference to the divorce in current literature between theory and practice, "Horticulture is by these means rendered a very complicated subject, so that none but practical gardeners can hope to pursue it successfully; and like all empirical things, it is degraded into a code of peremptory precepts."

Publications. "The Theory and Practice of Horticulture."

Though many aspects of Lindley's work must perforce be treated of in briefest form no sketch could have the slenderest value which did not take into account his chief works, The Theory and Practice of Horticulture, The Vegetable Kingdom, and the Botanical Register; nor from a survey no matter how brief may reference to his contributions to our knowledge of orchids be omitted.

The value of Lindley's great work on The Theory and Practice of Horticulture may be best gauged by the fact that as a statement of horticultural principles it is the best book extant. Though the botanist of the present day finds on perusing this work that physiological knowledge in 1840 was in a singularly crude state, and may rejoice at the rapid progress of discovery since the time when Lindley's book was written, yet the fact remains that few, if any, men at the present day could make a better statement of the physiological principles underlying practical horticulture than that presented by John Lindley.

Indeed it is a strange fact, and one worthy of the attention of our physiologists, that the gardeners are still endeavouring to puzzle out for themselves the reasons for their practices unaided by the physiologists. An interesting illustration of this assertion may be found in recent issues of the Gardeners' Chronicle containing correspondence from many of the leading growers on the principles underlying the cultivation of the vine. No physiological Philip has come as yet to their assistance! Lindley's book had at once a great vogue on the Continent and was translated into most European languages—Russian included; but it was not till its title was changed from The Theory... to The Theory and Practice... of Horticulture that his incorrigible fellow-countrymen, as shy of theory as a fox-glove is of chalk, consented to buy it to any considerable extent. It was doubtless due not only to Lindley's general services to horticulture but also to the special service which he rendered to that science by the publication of this work that led Lord Wrottesley, President of the Royal Society, to say, when presenting Lindley with the Royal Medal, that "he had raised horticulture from the condition of an empirical art to that of a developed science."

That John Lindley was a man of fine judgment is indicated by his own verdict that, except for The Vegetable Kingdom, The Theory and Practice of Horticulture was his best book. That verdict is sustained by posterity, as Mr Botting Hemsley declares of the former work,—"This grand book must be classed as Lindley's masterpiece. No similar English work was in existence in 1846 when the first edition appeared, nor was there in any language so encyclopaedic a work. Even now it is a valuable book in a small botanical library as it is a mine of information on points that are unchangeable. The work, as set forth in the preface, originated in a desire on the part of the author to make his countrymen acquainted with the progress of Systematical Botany abroad during the previous quarter of a century." Both in his books and in his lectures he adopted the natural system of classification and did much to popularise it though, as previously stated, his contemporaries Robert Brown, the Hookers, and G. Bentham were equally powerful adherents of the new system. To quote the picturesque if somewhat immoderate language of Reichenbach "for a long time the youthful interloper found no favour on account of his having introduced in conjunction Scot Brown, Gray and the still youthful Hooker the natural system of the hated Frenchman; where the more numerous disciples of Linnaeus had thought to pass their lives in the glory of pondering and admiring the great Swede." That Lindley was an early convert to this innovation is also proved by the fact that his inaugural lecture at University College startled many by its frank and thorough expression of the superficial character of the artificial system of classifying plants.

The third and last edition of The Vegetable Kingdom consists of about 1000 pages in small type with upwards of 500 illustrations. It contains an historical review of the various "Natural Systems" which had been prepared, beginning with John Ray's (1703) and ending with his own, which is used in the work. In this system Lindley divided plants into seven classes:—Thallogens, Acrogens, Rhizogens, Endogens, Dictyogens, Gymnogens and Endogens, and each class was subdivided into alliances or groups of Natural Orders to which he gave names of uniform termination, as Algales, Filicales, Glumales, Malvales, etc. This classification, though ingenious, is defective, as the author himself recognised. Though never adopted by other writers this fact did not prevent Bentham and Hooker from citing Lindley's work frequently in their Genera Plantarum. As Mr Botting Hemsley observes, Lindley, who in all questions of classification was both cautious and modest, seems to have been an evolutionist without knowing it. Thus in the course of discussion on the permanency of species he observes that "all the groups into which plants are thrown are in one sense artificial, in as much as nature recognises no such groups. As the Classes, Natural Orders and Genera of botanists have no real existence in Nature, it follows that they have no fixed limits and consequently it is impossible to define them....An arrangement then which shall be so absolutely correct an expression of the plan of nature as to justify its being called the Natural System is a chimera."

Owing to the fact that Hooker wrote the admirable and favourable review of the Origin of Species which appeared in the Gardeners Chronicle, it has been inferred that Lindley himself was not very well disposed toward the new theories; but Lord Lindley states that his father was much impressed by the Origin, said it would revolutionise botanical studies but that there were difficulties which would require elucidation before Darwin's theory could be regarded as completely satisfactory—surely a perspicacious judgment.

To turn to the woodcuts of The Vegetable Kingdom affords both pleasure and relief—pleasure on account of their excellence, relief to escape from the monotonous prettiness of modern process work.

Though space will not allow reference to other text-books and to innumerable minor publications—many of which may be found in the Lindley Library in the Royal Horticultural Society's headquarters at Vincent Square—a brief mention must be made of the Botanical Register. This periodical was founded in 1815, and so early as 1823 Lindley became a contributor to it; but it was not till 1829 that his name appeared on the title-page. From that time he was sole editor till 1847, when the Botanical Register ceased to appear; unable doubtless to stand against the Botanical Magazine which under the editorship of Hooker had passed from a moribund state into one of remarkable vigour which now, 125 years after its foundation, it still enjoys.


The magnitude of Lindley's work among his favourite group of plants, the Orchidaceae, deserves recognition by the general botanist. Botanical knowledge with respect to the group was in a very rudimentary stage when Lindley took up its study. Robert Brown and Blume were already engaged upon the investigation of orchids, but they relied mainly on herbarium material. Lindley, on the other hand, began with living plants and ended with living plants, though, as his herbarium testifies, he did not neglect dried specimens. A circumstance that favoured Lindley in these studies was the fact that William Cattley, an early patron of Lindley, was one of the most successful of the early cultivators of epiphytic orchids.

The chief of Lindley's published contributions to the knowledge of orchids, apart from scattered figures and descriptions in the Botanical Register, the Gardeners' Chronicle, Lindley and Paxton's Flower Garden, the Journal of the Linnean Society, and in other serials and periodicals, are to be found in The Genera and Species of Orchidaceous Plants, 1830—1840, in which are described all the species (1980) known of 299 genera; Sertum Orchidaceum (1838); Folia Orchidacea, 1852—1855; and The Vegetable Kingdom.

It is unfortunate that no attempt has as yet been made to catalogue the species described by Lindley; but with regard to genera an approximate list of those proposed by him may be attempted, and is interesting as giving some idea of the extent and value of Lindley's investigations in the group.

In the third edition of The Vegetable Kingdom he estimates the number of orchid genera at 469. Bentham and Hooker (Genera Plantarum, 1883) admit 334, and new genera proposed since that date amount to 125. Pfitzer (Engler and Prantl, Natürlichen Pflanzen-familien, 1889) describes 410.

The following is a list of Lindley's genera, admitted by Bentham and Hooker, in the sequence in which they appear in the Genera Plantarum:

Physosiphon Trichosma Sophronitis Acincta
Brachionidium Coelogyne Galeandra Mormodes
Oberonia Otochilus Ansellia Cycnoches
Oreorchis Pholidota Cremastra Stenia
Sunipia Lanium Bromheadia Clowesia
Cirrhopetalum Diothonea Govenia Scuticaria
Megaclinium Hormidium Grobya Camaridium
Trias Hexisia Cheiradenia Dichaea
Drymoda Pleuranthium Aganisia Trichopilia
Monomeria Diacrium Acacallis Aspasia
Panisea Ponera Eriopsis Cochlioda
Acrochaene Pinelia Warrea Dignathe
Coelia Hartwegia Batemannia Miltonia
Eria Cattleya Bifrenaria Solenidium
Phreatia Laeliopsis Xylobium Erycina
Chysis Tetramicra Lacaena Abola
Anthogonium Laelia Lycaste Trizeuxis
Earina Schomburgkia Chondrorhyncha Ada

Sutrina Diplocentrum Gomphicis Bicornella
Trigonidium Cryptopus Baskervilla Hemipilia
Quekettia Oeonia Pelexia Glossula
Zygostates Mystacidium Herpysma Pachites
Phymatidium Cirrhaea Zeuxine Herschelia
Centropetalum Notylia Haemaria Monadenia
Doritis Sertifera Hylophila Schizodium
Aëranthes Tropidia Drakaea Forficaria
Uncifera Pterichis Burnettia Brachycorythis
Acampe Prescottia Chloraea
Sarcanthus Pseudocentrum Stenoglottis

When it is remembered that Bentham, who elaborated the orchids for the Genera Plantarum, held broader views of generic limits than the majority of botanists, the fact that 114 or more than a third of the genera retained are Lindleyan is a striking testimony to the accuracy and range of Lindley's work in the group. Pfitzer in the work already cited retains 127 of Lindley's genera. In no other great family probably has one man left so large a mark as Lindley has left in the Orchidaceae. In this connection it may be added that 40 of Robert Brown's Orchid Genera and 50 of Blume's are retained by Bentham and Hooker.

The number of species of orchids known in his time Lindley doubtingly estimated at 3000. Collectors since that time have increased that number probably to 6000. The fact that about 1100 species of orchids are known from British India, outnumbering those of any other family by about 300, will doubtless surprise the majority of botanists.

Before closing this notice of a remarkable and versatile man some reference must be made to his pioneer work in the field of palaeobotany—a subject that has markedly advanced in recent times at the hands of Lindley's fellow-countrymen. In cooperation with Hutton there were published (1831—1837) the three volumes of Lindley and Hutton's Fossil Flora of Great Britain, an authoritative work, profusely illustrated with figures of the known fossils, and by no means entirely superseded at the present day. The introductory chapters to the volumes bear the mark of Lindley's handiwork, and that to volume III. contains the results of an extensive series of experiments carried out by Lindley to determine the capacity of various plants to resist the agencies of disintegration. These results have become classic and are often referred to by subsequent writers on palaeobotany.

During the progress of the Fossil Flora Lindley amassed a considerable collection of specimens, some of which have recently come to light in the cellars of University College. He was obliged however to abandon this branch of study as it threatened to distract his attention from other departments of botany.

Personal Characteristics.

In as much as it is our custom to erect none but the slightest and most casual memorials to our distinguished men of science or of letters, there is reason to rejoice that the name of Lindley is not inadequately commemorated.

The Lindley Library purchased in his honour and now permanently attached to the Royal Horticultural Society bids fair under the enlightened policy of that flourishing institution to grow into a great collection of horticultural works. The genus Lindleya is reminiscent to systematists of their great colleague and the name of Lindley is known and honoured by all our horticulturists. Of the man himself just so much may be said as to give form to the mind's image of him.

He was of middle height, active, upright, with shoulders somewhat sloping and of heavy tread. The sightlessness of one eye gave to his resolute face a somewhat strange look. Simple in habits, strenuous in work and perspicacious in judgment, John Lindley was a warm hearted and generous friend, particularly to young botanists. He was a powerful foe: altogether a masterful and remarkable man. Not suffering fools gladly yet with a humorous turn of mind: "I am a dandy in my herbarium," he once exclaimed to Reichenbach. Knowing no fear he could not hope for much favour, and yet carrying his heavy load of financial responsibility, he nevertheless won through to a wide measure of contemporary recognition and an assured place in the history of botanical science. To conclude with Reichenbach's fine tribute "we cannot tell how long Botany, how long science, will be pursued; but we may affirm that so long as a knowledge of plants is considered necessary, so long will Lindley's name be remembered with gratitude."