Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Webb, Philip Barker

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WEBB, PHILIP BARKER (1793–1854), botanist, was great-grandson of Philip Carteret Webb (1700–1770) [q. v.], and the eldest of three sons of Philip Smith Webb of Milford House, Surrey, and Hannah, daughter of Sir Robert Barker, bart. Webb was born at Milford House on 10 July 1793, and was educated at Harrow and at Christ Church, Oxford (he matriculated on 17 Oct. 1811), where William Buckland [q. v.] inspired him with a taste for geology. In 1812 he entered Lincoln's Inn, and in 1815 he graduated as B.A.; but, the death of his father having then put him in command of a handsome fortune, he at once began to gratify his taste for travel, for which he had equipped himself by a study of Italian and Spanish while at Oxford. Visiting Vienna, he made the acquaintance of the Chevalier Parolini of Bassano, who was of the same age, station, fortune, and tastes as himself, having studied botany and geology under Brocchi. Webb having stayed with him at Bassano, Parolini returned his visit at Milford in 1816, when they planned a joint expedition to the East. Previous to starting upon this, however, Webb paid a short visit to Sweden, visiting Gottenburg, Upsal, and Stockholm, and going as far as 61° N. lat.

The winter of 1817–18 Webb spent at Naples with his mother and two of his sisters, and Parolini joining him there, they started in April 1818 by way of Otranto, Corfu, Patras, and Athens, to the Cyclades, Constantinople, and the Troad, returning by Smyrna and Malta to Sicily. Being well versed in Homer and Strabo, Webb carefully studied the topography of the Troad; and, having come to conclusions very different from those propounded by Le Chevalier in his ‘Voyage de la Troade dans 1785 et 1789,’ he published at Milan in the winter of 1820–21 his ‘Osservazioni intorno allo stato antico e presente dell' agro Trojano,’ which was expanded in 1844 into ‘Topographie de la Troade ancienne et moderne,’ Paris, 8vo, a work showing much antiquarian and geological erudition. He rediscovered the Scamander and Simois, and settled some other important points in Homeric geography.

After this Webb spent some time at Milford, where he collected many interesting plants in his garden; but in July 1825 he visited the entomologist Léon Dufour at St. Sever, and after wintering in the south of France, made a year's tour of the eastern and southern coasts of Spain, collecting birds, fish, shells, and especially plants, a tour afterwards described in his ‘Iter Hispaniense’ (1838) and ‘Otia Hispanica’ (1853). In April 1827 he went from Gibraltar to Tangier, and, though he found it impossible to get far into the interior, made an interesting exploration of Jebel Beni-Hosmar and Jebel Darsa, mountains near Tetuan, the flora of which was then entirely unknown. Returning to Gibraltar in June, Webb devoted the remainder of the year to a journey on horseback through Portugal, the botanical results of which were included in his ‘Iter Hispaniense,’ though his many geological and mineralogical notes, including a geological map of the Lisbon basin, made in conjunction with Louis da Silva Mouzinho d'Albuquerque, remain unpublished.

In May 1828 Webb left Lisbon for Madeira, and in the following September went on to Teneriffe, intending to proceed to Brazil. Falling in with M. Savin Berthelot, however, a young Frenchman who had already spent eight years in the island and had formed a herbarium, Webb remained nearly two years in the Canaries, visiting with him Lanzarote, Feurteventura, Gran Canaria, and Palma. They studied and collected the plants, birds, fish, shells, and insects, examined the rocks, analysed the waters, made thermometrical observations, and neglected nothing which could help towards a complete physical and statistical history of the archipelago. In April 1830 Webb and Berthelot embarked at Santa Cruz, and, being kept out of France by cholera and revolution, went by way of the coast of Algeria to Nice, and thence to Geneva. In June 1833 they established themselves in Paris, where Webb got together a good library and a herbarium finer than any private collection in France, save that of Delessert. In preparing their great work, ‘Histoire Naturelle des îles Canaries’ (Paris, 1836–50, 9 vols. 4to), Webb reserved to himself most of the geology and botany and the description of the mammals, Berthelot contributing the ethnography, the history of the conquest and of the relations of the islanders with the Moors and with America, and the descriptive and statistical geography, while the services of Valenciennes were secured for the description of the fish; Alcide d'Orbigny for the mollusks; Brullé, H. Lucas, and Macquart for the insects; Paul Gervais for the reptiles; and Moquin-Tandon for the birds. Articles were also contributed by Montagne, C. H. Schulz, Decaisne, Parlatore, De Noe, and the younger Reichenbach. The issue of the work itself was followed by that of a folio atlas of 441 plates by the best artists obtainable.

After having spent fourteen years over the preparation of this work, travelling only between Milford and Paris, Webb wished to visit Tunis and Egypt, to solve some botanical problems left unsettled by Vahl and Desfontaines, but was twice stopped at the outset by indifferent health and the news of the unsatisfactory political and sanitary conditions of those countries. He accordingly in January 1848 started for Florence and Rome, the Italian climate suiting him, and devoted two years to collecting Italian plants. At Rome he made the acquaintance of the Countess Elizabeth Mazzanti-Fiorini, the cryptogamist, the only woman, he said, whom he had ever met who loved botany passionately. At Florence he was specially attracted by the botanical gallery of the museum, then under the care of his friend Parlatore, to which he planned to bequeath his library and herbaria. It was here that in the winter of 1848–9 he prepared his ‘Fragmenta Florulæ Æthiopico-Ægyptiacæ,’ which, however, was not published until 1854 (Paris, 8vo), owing to the Tuscan revolution of 1849.

After six weeks at Bagnères-de-Luchon, where he had been ordered to take the waters, in the summer of 1850, Webb revisited Spain to put some finishing touches to his ‘Otia Hispanica,’ and to visit his friend Graëlls, director of the museum and garden at Madrid. He had recently been given the order of Charles III by Queen Isabella, and on the occasion of this visit was elected corresponding member of the Academy of Sciences at Madrid at the same time as Leverrier.

In 1851 he returned to England, and in August, with his nephew, Godfrey Webb, visited Ireland, and, having received suggestions from his friend John Ball, explored the west coast from Cork to Killarney, Dingle, Tralee, Limerick, Galway, Roundstone, and the Aranmore Islands, the home of an interesting offshoot of the Iberian flora which he so well knew. After a year devoted to a synopsis of the flora of the Canaries, which he did not live to finish, and a second futile attempt to start for Tunis in the autumn of 1852, Webb again visited Italy and his friend Parolini, but was recalled to England by the death of his mother. In May 1854 he started for Geneva to visit his younger brother, Admiral Webb, but at Paris was seized with gout; and, though he so far recovered as to be able to superintend on crutches the classification of his library by Moquin-Tandon, he died on 31 Aug. 1854. He was buried in a mausoleum which he had built in the churchyard of Milford. The whole of his collections and herbarium, including those of Philippe Mercier, Desfontaines, La Billardière, Pavon, and Gustave de Montbret, together with complete sets of the plants collected by Wallich, Wight, Gardner, and Schimper, he bequeathed, with an endowment for their maintenance, to the Grand Duke Leopold II of Tuscany. The collection has a room to itself in the museum at Florence, where there is also a bust of the donor.

Besides the works already mentioned Webb was the author of many papers on various branches of natural history, the most important of which was perhaps his ‘Spicilegia Gorgonea,’ a catalogue of the plants of the Cape de Verd Islands, prefixed to Hooker and Bentham's ‘Niger Flora,’ 1849.

[Notice sur la vie et les travaux de Philippe Barker Webb, by M. J. Gay, Bulletin de la Société Botanique de France, 1856.]

G. S. B.