La Botaniste – a lady in the margins

In June 2021, we launched an appeal in collaboration with the BBC to help identify the veiled figure of La Botaniste, and thanks to an impressive public response, we can finally reveal her story

Books now housed in the Library at RHS Hilltop – The Home of Gardening Science

How it all began

In preparation for opening of the new library at RHS Hilltop – The Home of Gardening Science, the Library team have reviewed and moved a vast collection of more than 50,000 books, pamphlets and papers. One of these was a set of 5 volumes of The English Flora by Sir James Edward Smith published 1824–36.

It is a significant work on the wildflowers of England and Sir James Edward Smith was a well-respected botanist and the founder of the Linnean Society. However, the volumes are not particularly rare – the Library has four other sets.

Inside cover Illustration, The English Flora

The lady in the lithograph

What makes these books intriguing are the clues they contain about the owner, including an unusual cartoon. The lithographic image of a lady (image pictured) delicately composed of flowers, was pasted into the front of volume 1. Labelled in pencil as ‘La Botaniste Miss Allen’, we are presented with a notion of how, perhaps, the book’s former owner identified herself – as a botanist, a female botanist no less.

At first sight, the image reflects early stereotypical visions of women’s engagement in botany and horticulture. Gardening was seen as a genteel activity and the study of plants was a fashionable pursuit that suited conventional notions of femininity. However, look closely and you find a detail that may be easily overlooked. La Botaniste is holding a plant dissection, signalling her appreciation of not just the aesthetics of a flower, but its scientific aspects as well.

Front endpaper inscription, The English Flora

But who was La Botaniste?

Finding names inscribed in volumes (frequently on endpapers and flyleaves), as seen here in The English Flora with the inscription ‘Isabella Anne Allen / The gift of my kind friend / Mrs Green/ 1828’, does not automatically mean that former owners are easily identifiable. With women’s names, the problem is heightened by the lack of records of their lives. However, thanks to an incredible response from the public to our search, we can flesh out the story of La Botaniste.

Isabella Anne Allen was born on 27 December 1810, the daughter of John Henry and Susannah Rebekah Allen of Madresfield, Worcestershire. The family home was Rhydd House, an impressive mansion in Worcestershire with ample grounds ripe for botanising. Following the death of her father Isabella and her sister Ann went on to become ‘Landed Proprietors’, being listed as resident at the house in the 1851 census along with a cousin and three servants. We also learn that Isabella remained unmarried – an independent woman of some means.

Pencil illustration by Isabella A Allen, The English Flora

An extension of her botanical studies

Isabella certainly had a love of plants and carried that enthusiasm through her life. The Worcestershire Chronicle of 4 July 1860 mentions her as an active member of the Malvern Floral Society. Further clues to Isabella’s life may be found in an entry in Desmond’s Dictionary of English and Irish Botanists, 1994, which records one Isabella Anne Allen (active 1820s), whose ‘flower paintings’ sold at auction in 1973.

A similar sale of a set of watercolours occurred at Bonhams in 2010, though listed under Isabella Ann Allen. This chimes with the extremely competent pencil sketches in the books, including Pyrus malus on page xiv (image pictured). Painting was a desirable female accomplishment, so would be a logical extension to her botanical studies, but we cannot be certain the paintings that were auctioned were by our Isabella Allen.

Close up of plant material pressed within pages 266-267, The English Flora

Preserving a piece of history

Like many plant enthusiasts, Isabella used the margins of her books to record what she saw and preserved pressed plant specimens inside, perhaps as keepsakes or as material for later study. This leaves an interesting record of her botanical exploits.

If you are interested in plant preservation and pressed plant specimens you can learn more about our RHS Herbarium, the largest in the UK dedicated to ornamental plants with more than 86,000 specimens.

Inscription from margin of page 339, The English Flora

Plant collecting expeditions

Isabella’s plant collecting was largely at a local level. There are frequent references to Worcestershire, the River Severn, Great Malvern, and critically for our identification, Madresfield and the Rhydd as evidenced in the inscription here which reads ‘The Rhydd Worcestershire’. However, some annotations demonstrate plant hunting expeditions further afield, for example, in Hertfordshire, Tewksbury and significantly Bishop’s Hull in Somerset.

Isabella’s aunt, also named Isabella Ann, married Sir Charles Webb Dance in 1816 and the family home, Barr House, was in Bishop’s Hull – we can assume Miss Allen was a family visitor. Furthermore, in 1841 the Dance household included M. M. Green, M.D. (aged 70 years). Was this the husband or relative of La Botaniste’s ‘kind friend Mrs. Green’?

Botanical reference from Daléchamps’ Historia generalis plantarum

Consulting other works

Another note references Daléchamps’ Historia generalis plantarum, 1586, showing that Isabella consulted other works on botany – she was clearly educated, well read and in a position to access a larger collection of material.

After her death in 1865, we know that she bequeathed her effects to her sister Ann, who in turn left an ‘old set of books of wild flowers’ to her niece Maria Alice Empson who died in 1948. Isabella and Ann, it seems, developed a library collection of their own.

Inside McDonald’s A complete dictionary of practical gardening (1807)

Books inscribed by women

Isabella is certainly not alone in leaving evidence of use in her collection of books. RHS Libraries are fortunate to have a number of examples of books showing direct engagement by women. Sophia Mackenzie covered the pages of her copy of McDonald’s A complete dictionary of practical gardening, 1807 (image pictured) with hundreds of botanical paintings likely copied from Curtis’s Botanical Magazine.

An inscription inside records that she ‘took the book to Kew Gardens as the numbers came out & painted the flowers in the text’. As well as bookplates and inscriptions left by women, there are more prosaic entries – herbals passed from mother to daughter or leaves used to record domestic accounts.

Books in the Display Room in the Library at RHS Hilltop – The Home of Gardening Science

Shedding light on hidden histories

Female contributions in the history of horticulture and botany have often been over-shadowed or overlooked. The evidence left by women in books, while not always easy to unravel, can open up a rare window – not only telling us about the books they owned and read, but also their intellectual pursuits, leisure activities and glimpses into their lives. Provenance studies help to build a richer picture and material in RHS Libraries offers an intriguing source that can shed light on hidden histories, of women in the margins.

Explore more from RHS Libraries

Get involved

The Royal Horticultural Society is the UK’s leading gardening charity. We aim to enrich everyone’s life through plants, and make the UK a greener and more beautiful place.