Scandalous Connections….

Grevillea ‘Bonfire’

Plants gain their names in curious ways.  To gardeners, Grevillea is a wonderful group of shrubby Protea relatives (mostly from Australia).  The brilliant botanist Robert Brown, having studied the Protea family, determined this particular cadre of species should be recognized as the separate genus Grevillea, one of several new names he proposed in 1809 during an extensive presentation to London’s Linnaean Society.  But before Brown’s written descriptions were published, Richard Salisbury (who had attended the  talk and taken extensive notes) documented Brown’s new plant groups in hastily-written descriptions tucked into an article by Joseph Knight on cultivating these plants.  The plant world erupted in disbelief, that someone would so audaciously preempt another person’s work.  The matter was settled eventually, as botanists conserved Brown’s authorship over Salisbury’s plagiarisms.

Apart from the taxonomic upset, how was it that Brown selected the name Grevillea for this wonderful group which (in the words of Lauren Swezey) “seems to reinvent itself from one plant to the next?” 

Brown was protégé to Joseph Banks, whose good friend  (and fellow member of London’s Royal Society) Charles F. Greville died in 1809.  Greville was well-known and well-connected, having sponsored James Smithson’s membership in the Royal Society.  You will see early issues of the Royal Society’s Transactions on display in the Library main hall, informing us this is the earliest reviewed scientific journal.

Significantly for collections in the Huntington Gallery, it was Greville who introduced his mistress Emma Hart to artist George Romney.  Hart (who would later take the name Lady Hamilton) became a favorite subject for Romney, who depicted her in 45 paintings, one of which hangs in the Huntington Gallery. 

Thus, through contorted and somewhat salacious connections, a wonderful group of plants in California gardens, early botanists and their publications are linked to a portrait in a California gallery.  

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