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John Hill, Exotic Botany and the competitive world of eighteenth-century horticulture

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Botany in the mid-eighteenth century was about much more than gathering medical simples or developing scholarly systematisations. The collection and classification of the vegetable world also depended on practical expertise, particularly concerning the preservation and cultivation of plants. Specimens could be conserved in herbaria, or through botanical illustrations, or, as I discuss here, as live plants grown in gardens. From his early position as Petre’s assistant gardener at Thorndon to his later work for Bute in developing Kew Gardens, John Hill’s life and works were grounded in this earthier dimension of botany. This chapter situates John Hill within the context of botany and horticulture in the mid-eighteenth century, focusing on questions of social status, competition and rivalry. Drawing evidence from Hill’s beautiful and rare book Exotic Botany (1759), I discuss his connections with a network of botanical gardeners and plant traders active in and around London, a green-fingered community that originated almost wholly from these lower social tiers. Seeking to understand how this community dealt with rivalry, I examine how gardeners and nurserymen responded to an increasingly competitive commercial scene. Hill operated within a world in which scholars and entrepreneurs might attempt to gain an edge on their rivals through deploying their intellect and their capacity for puffery. To what extent did gardeners and nurserymen engage with such methods? And was Hill’s trajectory really atypical compared with those in the wider botanico-horticultural community?


Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationFame and Fortune
Subtitle of host publicationSir John Hill and London Life in the 1750s
EditorsClare Brant, George Rousseau
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan
ISBN (Electronic)9781137580542
ISBN (Print)9781137580535
Publication statusPublished - 2018

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