Botanical gardeners: in the university, but not of the university

Botanical gardeners: in the university, but not of the university

The Danby Gate therefore marked the boundary between the civilised world of the university and the more rustic world of the garden. In analogous fashion, the garden's superintendent occupied a liminal social position between the liberal arts of the university and the manual labours of the countryside. 

Perhaps the most eloquent testimony to this position is the pen portrait of the second superintendent, Jacob Bobart the Younger (1641–1719, pictured in Image 1), composed in 1710 by the visiting Frankfurt patrician, Zacharias Conrad von Uffenbach:

"We entered the Hortus Medicus and Professor Bobart was waiting for us. I was greatly shocked by the hideous features and generally villainous appearance of this good and honest man. His wife, a filthy old hag, was with him, and although she may be the ugliest of her sex he is certainly the more repulsive of the two. An unusually pointed and very long nose, little eyes set deep in the head, a twisted mouth almost without upper lip, a great deep scar in one cheek and the whole face and hands as black and coarse as those of the poorest gardener or farm-labourer. His clothing and especially his hat were also very bad. Such is the aspect of the professor, who would most naturally be taken for the gardener.  In point of fact he does nothing else but work continually in the garden, and in the science of botany he is the careful gardener rather than the learned expert.  Yet the industry of the man in publishing the works of his predecessor Morison, who far excelled him in learning, is as praiseworthy as his work in the garden."*

* W.H.Quarrel and W.J.C. Quarrel, eds., Oxford in 1710 from the Travels of Zacharias Conrad von Uffenbach (Oxford, 1928), 55. For the German original, see Herrn Zacharias Conrad von Uffenbach Merckwürdige Reise durch Niedersachsen Holland und Engelland, 3 vols (Frankfurt and Leipzig, Leipzig 1753-54), 163-4.

Several things must be considered in assessing the accuracy of these two portraits. First, Bobart was never in fact a professor.  After the sudden and accidental death of his colleague and mentor, the professor of botany, Robert Morison, in 1683, Bobart agreed to provide the University with lectures in the subject. Many of his contemporaries naturally assumed that he also occupied the botanical chair, and apparently communicated that assumption to von Uffenbach. This, however, was impossible: Bobart had neither degree nor membership of the University, and was merely the praefectus or superintendent of the Botanical Garden.  Second, von Uffenbach was a very stern judge: a voracious bibliophile, an exceptionally widely travelled and knowledgeable virtuoso, and a wealthy patrician from Frankfurt am Main, whose perspective on Bobart and indeed all of Oxford is coloured by an unmistakable sense of superiority. Regarded in this light, his pen portrait is reconcilable with the painted one: the 'unusually pointed and very long nose’ is unmistakable; the thin upper lip is recognizable; a charitable portraitist may well have disguised the twisted mouth and deep-set eyes as much as possible without rendering the sitter unrecognizable; and it is not difficult to imagine a scar lurking in the deep shadow on the right side of the face.

What is particulary insructive, in any case, is the stark contrast between how a professor should look, in von Uffenbach's mind at least, and how this gardener does look. The 'black and coarse' face and hands, the bad clothes and wretched hat, the scarred face, hideous features, and filthy wife are the attributes, not of a professor but 'of the poorest gardener or farm-labourer'. If the contrast remains unclear, one need only examine von Uffenbach's own portait: soft white hands, starched collar, velvet robe, and long wig cascading over his shoulders, to say nothing of the vast library in his palacious and architecturally up-to-the-minute Frankfurt residence. Rather like the barber-surgeon of previous eras, the praefectus of the Botanical Garden suffered into the eighteenth century from the deep-seated prejudice that a professor was a gentleman, and gentlemen do not work with their hands. In this respect as in so many others, active engagement with the natural world was retarded by a social value system dating back to ancient Athens.

Credit: Howard Hotson (October 2016)

Proposal for enhancement. Similar observations could be teased out of other depictions and descriptions of both Bobarts -- the Younger (the eccentic figure depicted in Image 2, with long, unruly beard and hair, cadaeus, and pet goat) and the Elder (with the magnificent beard and mane of hair engraved in Image 3, so different from the professorial portraits of the period). See also the portraits of the two John Tradescants, the Elder and the Younger, linked in Related Sources.