"A Collection of Rarities"

The title of this web site is a reference (and a tribute) to the lives of the John Tradescants (Elder and Younger), who lived in England in the 16th and 17th centuries. Adventurous travellers, diplomats, horticultural pioneers, and polymaths, they were also collectors, acquiring (and asking their friends to acquire) specimens of the wonders of the world. Their growing collection was made accessible to the public in a large house -- "The Ark" -- in South Lambeth, London. In 1638, a detailed description of the collection and its contents was recorded by a German traveller named Georg Christoph Stirn. His account was as follows:

In the museum of Mr. John Tradescant are the following things: first in the courtyard there lie two ribs of a whale, also a very ingenious little boat of bark; then in the garden all kinds of foreign plants, which are to be found in a special little book which Mr. Tradescant has had printed about them. In the museum itself we saw a salamander, a chameleon, a pelican, a remora, a lanhado from Africa, a white partridge, a goose which has grown in Scotland on a tree, a flying squirrel, another squirrel like a fish, all kinds of bright colored birds from India, a number of things changed into stone, amongst others a piece of human flesh on a bone, gourds, olives, a piece of wood, an ape's head, a cheese, etc; all kinds of shells, the hand of a mermaid, the hand of a mummy, a very natural wax hand under glass, all kinds of precious stones, coins, a picture wrought in feathers, a small piece of wood from the cross of Christ, pictures in perspective of Henry IV and Louis XIII of France, who are shown, as in nature, on a polished steel mirror when this is held against the middle of the picture, a little box in which a landscape is seen in perspective, pictures from the church of S. Sophia in Constantinople copied by a Jew into a book, two cups of rinocerode, a cup of an E. Indian alcedo which is a kind of unicorn, many Turkish and other foreign shoes and boots, a sea parrot, a toad-fish, an elk's hoof with three claws, a bat as large as a pigeon, a human bone weighing 42 lbs., Indian arrows such as are used by the executioners in the West Indies- when a man is condemned to death, they lay open his back with them and he dies of it, an instrument used by the Jews in circumcision, some very light wood from Africa, the robe of the King of Virginia, a few goblets of agate, a girdle such as the Turks wear in Jerusalem, the passion of Christ carved very daintily on a plumstone, a large magnet stone, a S. Francis in wax under glass, as also a S. Jerome, the Pater Noster of Pope Gregory XV, pipes from the East and West Indies, a stone found in the West Indies in the water, whereon are graven Jesus, Mary and Joseph, a beautiful present from the Duke of Buckingham, which was of gold and diamonds affixed to a feather by which the four elements were signified, Isidor's MS of de natura hominis, a scourge with which Charles V is said to have scourged himself, a hat band of snake bones'.

The Tradescant's collection was eventually transferred to -- and some say it was swindled out of them by -- Elias Ashmole, who used it to start what eventually became known as The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

The following is taken from the jacket of Leith-Ross's "The John Tradescants":

"The elder John Tradescant (c. 1570-1638) and his son John (1608-1662) were gardeners, collectors of curiosities and importers of exotic plants. Working for a series of eminent patrons (among them Robert Cecil, the Duke of Buckingham and Charles I), they supervised some of the great gardens of the period and were responsible for introducing many new plants into Britain. Their own botanic garden at South Lambeth became the centre of horticultural interest in Britain and their collection of rarities, The Ark, which subsequently formed the basis of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, was the first public museum in the country. In the range of their interests and in their expertise, both Tradescants were unique and justly famous among their contemporaries ...

"The elder Tradescant went on collecting trips to Europe, while the younger voyaged as far as Virginia. John the elder was also employed on a number of diplomatic or military missions. In 1618 he travelled to Russia, leaving a fascinating account of the journey; two years later he joined an expedition to Algiers against the Barbary pirates; in the service of the Duke of Buckingham he acted as baggage-master when the Duke went to Paris to escort Charles I's bride, Henrietta Maria, to England, and served as an engineer on the ill-fated Isle of Rhé campaign in 1627.

"[With his son he was] founder and curator of the first public museum in England, The Ark ... established in 1629 and acquired fifty years later, under somewhat questionable circumstances, by Elias Ashmole. A collection of rarities unequalled in Britain, it contained a incredible variety of objects and specimens: artifacts, books, weapons, coins, stuffed animals and birds (including a dodo), paintings, items of costume, shells and countless curiosities."



Leith-Ross, P. 1984. The John Tradescants: Gardeners to the Rose and Lily Queen. London: Peter Smith.


The John Tradescants - Biography (Museum of Garden History)
To be 'curious' was a compliment in Elizabethan/Jacobean times and both Tradescants became famous for gardening, design, travel and their collection of curiosities.

The John Tradescants - Tomb (Museum of Garden History)
The four sides of the tomb are carved: On the east side - the Tradescant Arms. On the west side - a seven-headed Hydra and a skull. On the south side - broken columns, Corinthian capitals, a pyramid and ruins On the north side - a crocodile, shells, and a view of some Egyptian buildings. Local Lambeth legend states that if the tomb is danced around twelve times as Big Ben strikes midnight a ghost appears.

The John Tradescants - Portraits (Museum of Garden History)
The John Tradescants - Portraits (National Portrait Gallery, London)

Elias Ashmole (The Ashmolean, Oxford)
With the opening of its doors on 24 May 1683, the Ashmolean Museum provided a setting in which the private collection emerged into the public domain. Even the use of the term `Museum' was a novelty in English: a few years later the New World of Words (1706) defined it as `a Study, or Library; also a College, or Publick Place for the Resort of Learned Men', with a specific entry for `Ashmole's Museum', described as `a neat Building in the City of Oxford'.

The Tradescant Collection (The Ashmolean, Oxford)
In the museum of Mr. John Tradescant are the following things: first in the courtyard there lie two ribs of a whale, also a very ingenious little boat of bark; then in the garden all kinds of foreign plants, which are to be found in a special little book which Mr. Tradescant has had printed about them ...

The Tradescant Collection (The Ashmolean, Oxford)
Selected items from the Tradescant Collection.

Tradescant House (The Vauxhall Society, London)

Chelsea Physic Garden
The Chelsea Physic Garden was founded in 1673, as the Apothecaries' Garden, with the purpose of training apprentices in identifying plants. The location was chosen as the proximity to the river created a warmer microclimate allowing the survival of many non-native plants - such as the largest outdoor fruiting olive tree in Britain - and more importantly, to allow plants to survive harsh British winters.

Cranborne Manor Garden
Surrounding the ancient Manor House and adjacent to the village of Cranborne, the garden has a number of features designed by the Tradescants.

Viag of Ambusad, or John Tradescant's Journey to Russia, 1618
In 1618, John Tradescant embarked on a voyage to Russia in the company of Sir Dudley Digges. Digges, born in 1583, was a shareholder in the East India Company, and a founding member of the less famous North West Passage Company; he had spent several years traveling aboard.

John Tradescant (Wikipedia entry)