John Tradescant’s Thames-side home, 1634

The curious gardener

In 1634, anyone who spent a day at John Tradescant’s house and garden in south Lambeth could discover more curiosities than a man might see in a lifetime of travel. Tradescant’s ‘Ark’, a must-see attraction for half a century, was Britain’s first museum.

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As a young man, gardener John Tradescant travelled to France and the Low Countries collecting outlandish trees and plants on behalf of his employer, the Lord Treasurer Robert Cecil.

When Tradescant later joined the Duke of Buckingham’s staff, Buckingham’s position as Lord Admiral of England opened up more diverse collecting opportunities. Tradescant wrote to British ships trading around the globe, requesting, ‘All Maner of Beasts & Fowels & Birds Alyve’. He especially requested the biggest, greatest or strangest specimens.

Connections with New World explorer John Smith and King Charles I (whose garden Tradescant also tended) led to the donation of other unique artefacts to Tradescant’s collection. These included the robe of ‘the King of Virginia’ and Henry VIII’s stirrups and hawking gear.

After the Duke of Buckingham’s murder, Tradescant installed all these rarities in his own family home and opened it to the public. Anyone with sixpence to spare might wonder at the hands of mermaids and mummies, a salamander, a chameleon and a pelican, a bat as large as a pigeon, a Madagascan dodo, a small piece of wood from the cross of Christ and much more.

There are no surviving pictures of Tradescant’s museum, but it may have looked something like the Italian apothecary Ferrante Imperato’s impressive cabinet of curiosities. Dubbed ‘Tradescant’s Ark’, the gardener’s unsorted and unclassified collection was a microcosm of the entire world.

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Merchants of Light

By the time Tradescant died in 1638, a new approach to collecting was emerging: not the gathering and display of eclectic and rare curiosities, but an ordered search for specimens that might be studied to understand the world. In one philosopher’s mind, the men building up such collections were nothing less than ‘merchants of light’.

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