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John Lindley, the man who saved Kew

Joanne Yeomans
11 July 2013
John Lindley, botanist, gardener and orchidologist, is little known nowadays but he played a vital role in preserving Kew Gardens for the nation. Now Kew's exhibition of works by his great grandson, Rory McEwen, is reviving interest in his role and in his own artworks.

The man who saved Kew Gardens

John Lindley (1799-1865) has been described as the man who saved Kew Gardens. He was part of an 1837 committee commissioned by the government to examine Kew and report their findings on the future of the gardens. The death of both Joseph Banks and George III in 1820 started Kew’s decline and the committee was required to review the garden's purpose, either as serving the Royal Household, the public or as a place for science.

John Lindley (1799-1865)

Lindley's proposals

There was unease about Kew’s condition and status: the hothouses were overcrowded and needed repair, the lake was muddy, and the garden buildings were shabby. The review came at a time when other gardens such as Oxford, Cambridge and Edinburgh were flourishing. The botanic garden at Kew, which covered 15 acres at the time, had a small arboretum and unlabelled plants which had no noteworthy arrangement.

In March 1838, Lindley presented his report. He recommended that the gardens be retained for the nation and as a centre of botanical science in England, equipped with a herbarium and library. The government did not accept the findings but the matter was successfully raised in Parliament in the spring of 1840. As a result, the grounds (apart from 20 acres around the Queen’s cottage) were transferred to the Commissioners of Woods and Forests and William Jackson Hooker was appointed the first Director in July 1841. Lindley’s legacy continues at Kew: his orchid herbarium is held here which holds over 7,000 specimens; and his correspondence is collected in the Library.


Rosa cinnamomea  by John Lindley

Lindley the artist

As well as publishing books, notably with Francis Bauer, Lindley also illustrated his own monographs. In 1820 Lindley published ‘Rosarum monographica; or a botanical history of Roses’  where he illustrated 18 of the 19 plates. The book, with an illustration of Rosa cinnamomea by Lindley, is on display as part of the Rory McEwen The Colours of Reality exhibition at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art.

Rory McEwen The Colours of Reality exhibition at The Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art

Rory McEwen

Lindley’s great grandson, Rory McEwen, was a botanical artist painting from the late 1950s to early 1980s and the exhibition features his botanical work as well as showcasing his talents for sculpture, poetry and music. McEwen painted many flower species, including roses, and was greatly influenced by the old master painter Pierre-Joseph Redouté. In the early 1950s McEwen’s brother in law purchased two portfolios of 52 original watercolour paintings on vellum by Redouté and McEwen discovered them during his time studying at Cambridge. This gave him the unique opportunity to study the originals rather than published engravings. 

Rose 1970 by Rory McEwen

McEwen’s early paintings of roses, dating from 1953, had a simple style but, as he continued to paint, Redouté’s influence was reflected in his work. McEwen’s attention to detail, simplicity of specimen, elegance of line and surface modeling could all have been inspired by the work of Redouté.

Rose ‘William Lobb’ 1976-78 by Rory McEwen


Visit the exhibition

John Lindley’s influence and legacy at Kew is still evident today. His recommendations in the report started to create the gardens which we see today and his work is still held in a variety of Kew’s collections. In addition, his work as a botanical artist is noteworthy, not only in the context of the genre, but within his own family, as Rory McEwen, his great grandson, was one of the most notable botanical artists of the twentieth century.

Rory McEwen The Colours of Reality is on display in the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art until 22 September 2013.

- Joanne -



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21 August 2013
Great post!
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12 July 2013
Remarkable post to make us realize the notable striving John Lindley made to preserve Kew Gardens! If he had not talked to the Prime Minister perhaps the gardens would not have been saved. Samreen M
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