This book is a joy for many unexpected reasons. One might not be drawn by an account of the story behind a series of 170 drawings by an anonymous, botanically illiterate Portuguese Indian, depicting plants growing 150 years ago in a botanic garden that no longer exists. But to pass this book by is to ignore a botanical gem that is much more than pretty pictures with a token prologue. Henry Noltie has given us a piece of scholarship that provokes as often as it educates.
The drawings are beautifully reproduced. They are of mixed quality and accuracy, but the artist shows what can be achieved when unencumbered by prior knowledge or personal taste. For example, the accuracy of the detailed drawings of the flowers of Jatropha gossypifolia is a lesson to those who shy away from depicting members of this family.
Today, very few artists would chose Persicaria for their subject, yet the simple beauty of these plates shows what can be achieved with the most unpromising of material. The drawings are full of botanical character, none more so than the picture of Ceratonia siliqua or carob. The contorted leaves and minimalist inflorescences capture the essence of this ethnobotanical enigma - in the same way that Noltie's book captures the essence of the man who commissioned the drawings. Despite painstaking research, Alexander Gibson himself remains an ethnobotanical enigma.
Botany, horticulture, and gardening are activities where gentlemen and players work successfully side by side. Gibson started life as the former but ended it as the latter. He studied medicine and was employed, aged 20, as a surgeon's mate. However, like so many before and after him, Gibson soon recognised that botany is infinitely more satisfying than medicine.
During his career with the East India Company, he spent 22 years as superintendent of the Dapuri Botanic Garden. In addition, he was divisional vaccinator and conservator of forests. While some might regard this as versatility, one suspects that the EIC saw this as economy. Gibson was an intensely private man whose writings reveal little emotion, but his actions reveal a man committed to the sustainable development of India not only for the immediate economic benefit of native Indians and the British but also for the future wellbeing of the Indian flora. If those principles sound familiar, they are very close to those of the Convention on Biological Diversity signed 150 years after Gibson began experimental thinning of teak plantations. Among his other concerns was the effect that deforestation has on both the fresh-water supply and the soil - the latter being washed into the former.
Gibson does not conform to the stereotype of the colonial gentleman. He took great trouble to learn the local languages and respected the local ethnobotanical knowledge, especially where it was relevant to medicinal plants. He was also committed to the use of his botanic gardens for the education of young people. He would have fitted perfectly into a modern botanic garden, except for perhaps his belief in hefty fines for losing pruning knives.
The creation of a book such as this is possible only because the EIC kept meticulous records. It is unlikely that modern glossy annual brochures, full of ten-second sound bites, will serve historians so well. However, with the support of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and the Dinshaw family, Noltie has produced a fascinating insight into botany in India in the middle of the 19th century.
Timothy Walker is director, University of Oxford Botanic Garden.
The Dapuri Drawings: Alexander Gibson and the Bombay Botanic Gardens
Author - H. J. Noltie
Publisher - Antique Collectors' Club
Pages - 240
Price - £35.00
ISBN - 1 85149 422 7