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History of art in the Directors' Correspondence: the painting of an iconic Kew image

Helen Hartley
30 October 2013
Spiridione Gambardella's portrait of Sir William Jackson Hooker is an iconic image of the great man - but how did this painting come about? Letters in the Kew's Directors' Correspondence collection shed some light on the process.

An Iconic Image

When I started on the , I was given an A4 sheet containing the names, dates and pictures of the first five Directors of Kew. The tiny black and white thumbnail image of Kew's first Director, Sir William Jackson Hooker, above my desk is a facsimile of a portrait by the artist Spiridione Gambardella.  The original oil painting hangs in the meeting room of the Linnean Society of London. It is a congenial image of the great man and one that I have become very familiar with over the years.

Sir William Jackson Hooker: Oil on Canvas painted by Spiridione Gambardella. Digital image reproduced with kind permission of The Linnean Society of London.

Imagine my surprise, therefore, when I came across a number of letters in the DC collection discussing the artist Gambardella and his painting of this very portrait. The references were uncovered in the letters of Francis Boott, an American physician and botanist who lived and worked in London.  We have digitised around 200 letters from Boott, a man who was well-connected socially and who took the aspiring young artist, Gambardella, under his wing. The first mention of Gambardella is in a letter from Boott to Sir William, dated 3 Nov 1842:

 "My friend Gambardella has promised me to paint your Portrait at Kew. I wish to save you all possible trouble. Will you admit him to your house & tell me what hours would suit you best?...I am much interested in him - He has noble aspirations - If you will tell me what your wishes are as to time I will at once make arrangements with him - sooner the better."  [Archive ref: DC 63 f.42]

Sir William was obviously keen to accept the offer: only four days later Boott wrote again, thanking Hooker for his kind permission to receive Gambardella [Archive ref: DC 63 f.39].  The artist visited Hooker the following day, Boott informing Hooker – in a letter of introduction – that Gambardella "will prefer the morning light, & perhaps daily visits". [Archive ref: DC 63 f.38].

It took Gambardella 8 months to finish the portrait: he left London for Liverpool around 16 July 1843, begging Boott to send the copy of his portrait to Hooker with his love. Boott placed the original in the Linnean Society.


 Extract of a letter from Francis Boott informing Hooker that Gambardella sent him a copy of the portrait for Hooker [Archive ref: DC 63 f.55

Meeting Sir William face-to-face

I contacted Julia Buckley from our Illustrations team at Kew to ask about Hooker's copy of the painting.  Julia very kindly suggested I go along and take a look at it: it was much smaller than I'd imagined, less than half the size of the Linnean portrait.  Nonetheless, it was fascinating to be able to see the portrait that had been discussed in the letters.

I had the pleasure of seeing Sir William's copy of Gambardella's oil painting of Sir William in Kew's collection

On the back of the small Kew painting is a hand-written label which states: "From this portrait, the likeness in the Linnean Society was made".  Looking at digital images of the two portraits side by side it is clear that this is the case: the Linnean Society portrait has a much 'finer' finish, with the artist adding detail to the background and to Sir William's clothes.  Sir William's face in the Linnean portrait also has a more 'air-brushed' quality to it.

Comparing digital images of the Kew 'copy' (left) and the Linnean image (right) of Sir William by Gambardella.

A Short Biography of Gambardella

In addition to providing a glimpse into how the artist worked, Boott's correspondence contains a short biography of Gambardella.  By way of a 'reference', Boott informed Hooker that the artist was a native of Corfu, born of Neapolitan parents, who was brought up and educated at Naples, where he studied drawing.  However, according to Boott, his "free mind could not submit to the despotism of State & church there". Gambardella accepted a post on an American ship, eventually reaching the US, where he became naturalised. Gambardella's paintings there were so superior that he was advised to go to London, where an Italian friend introduced him to Boott. Boott describes the artist as having "the keenest sensibilities - is of the friendliest[?] disposition - & almost painfully sensitive to esteem."

Extract of a letter from Boott describing Gambardella's personality [Archive ref: DC 63 f.39]

Unfortunately, there does not appear to be any correspondence from Gambardella himself held at Kew. However, the letters from Boott illustrate – once again – what interesting nuggets of historical information lie buried within Kew's Directors' Correspondence collection. The digitisation process, which involves the painstaking work of reading through all of the letters, has been so important in uncovering such gems and in serving to illustrate just how diverse and historically interesting the collection is! 

- Helen -


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