Mystery of Missing Artwork Leads to Russia

William Bartram (1739-1823), the well-traveled, Philadelphia-based botanist who helped introduce new plants to many gardens in England and beyond, was also a successful writer and talented artist who created beautiful, fresh watercolors of the flora and fauna of North America.

For more than 40 years I have been trying to locate some of the many plant paintings he made for John Fothergill in London in exchange for the Quaker doctor’s generous support. In April of this year I traveled to St. Petersburg with an English botanist friend and fellow historian, John Edmondson, in search of his artwork. Why St. Petersburg? We had good reason to believe that some of Bartram’s paintings were acquired by Catherine the Great (1729-1796), Empress of Russia, when Dr. Fothergill died in 1780.

Catherine the Great, the empress of Russia whose interest in natural history prompted my visit to St. Petersburg.

Some of the paintings Bartram made for Fothergill were bought from the doctor’s estate by Sir Joseph Banks, the botanist who accompanied Captain James Cook on his first great expedition around the world (1768-1771). I was able to see those paintings at the Natural History Museum in London just days before my St. Petersburg visit.

The rest of the paintings that were once in Fothergill’s collection have not been seen since the doctor’s death. Circumstantial evidence (annotated auction catalogs from the 10-day sale of Fothergill’s estate) indicate that agents working for the acquisitive empress may have secured them for her and whisked them to St. Petersburg as part of her admirable effort to make that city a center for the study of science. They were certainly successful in acquiring other collections that served that purpose, many of which we were able to locate and examine during our two-week stay.

The Kunstkamera on the River Neva. Completed in 1727, this museum is the oldest in Russia. It houses some of the scientific and ethnographic collections assembled by Peter the Great.

Our trip was made possible by the Yale Center for British Art, which has an interest in finding unknown British collections in other institutions. (Since Bartram made his paintings when North America was still a British colony, and since his patron was living in London, his American paintings are considered British!)  With the center’s help, we were able to make all the necessary arrangements with Russian officials to have access to the restricted archives in which we believed the paintings might be found.

St. Petersburg is a stunningly beautiful city that faces the congestion challenges of any large urban center.

Happily, we were able to see hundreds of important 18th-century natural history paintings that Catherine had acquired at the Fothergill sale and elsewhere, which have been unstudied by American scholars until now. Most remain uncatalogued. These works of art, many the first paintings ever made of recently discovered species of plants, tell us much about what was being grown in Fothergill’s garden (one of the finest in England) and just how wide his circle of collectors was at the time of the American Revolution.

Unfortunately, due to budgetary conflicts with Moscow, one of the key archives we were hoping to visit in St. Petersburg was closed to outside researchers just before we arrived. It still remained closed, months after our trip.

The 18th-century capital of Russia, St. Petersburg is filled with royal residences, including the Hermitage, formally the tsar’s Winter Palace, which is now a public museum. Its extensive art collections from the 13th to the 20th centuries are displayed in about 120 rooms.

In preparation for a major exhibit and book on William Bartram, now being planned for 2024, I am still hoping that I will be able to locate the missing Bartram drawings.  In the meantime, I am grateful that we were able to find so many treasures that help tell the story of trans-Atlantic, inter-European exchanges in natural science.

Much more waits to be discovered in St. Petersburg!  I look forward to a return trip in 2020.


Story and photos by Robert Peck, Senior Fellow of the Academy of Natural Sciences

One comment

  1. Robert Peck,

    Wow! This is a wonderful story. I admire your detective work and persistence. I wish you a successful trip in 2020, and hope that you will eventually be able to see the missing Bartram drawings. I am sure that the exhibit and book on William Bartram will be fascinating. It will be quite a scholarly achievement.

    Joyce Portnoy

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