The Physic Garden, Chelsea: men botanizing in the garden, near the statue of Sir Hans Sloane, 1750. Wood engraving by T. W. Lascelles after H. G. Glindoni, 1890. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Public and Private Gardens in the Eighteenth Century

By Chelsea Clark

Sloane was unique in his collecting habits and connections to gardens. He was passionate about obtaining plant specimens and discovering their various medical uses, however, appeared to be less interested in being personally involved in gardening. This is apparent when comparing his practices to those of his friend and colleague, Richard Richardson.

Despite the growing popularity of private gardens in England, Sloane did not have a garden of his own. His method of collecting botanical specimens was to dry them and press them in books, or keep them as seeds. Many of his letter correspondents cultivated gardens of their own and experimented with acclimatizing foreign specimens to English soil. Why did Sloane assist the Chelsea Garden at its time of crisis (mentioned in first post) if he was not trying to gain access to a garden of live specimens? How did his apparent abstinence from gardening connect with his support of the Chelsea Garden for the advancement of pubic botanical knowledge?

Sloane valued the plant knowledge that could be obtained from the garden knowing that it would indirectly aid him in his own pursuits as well as the greater scientific community. The published catalogue of the first transfer of fifty specimens (Philosophical Transactions, 1722) stated that Sloane’s motivation was to “encourage and promote an Undertaking so serviceable to the Publick.”

Curiously, there were no records of letter communication from Phillip Miller, the botanist placed in charge of the Chelsea Garden, to Sloane in regards to the Chelsea Garden. It seems most likely that the lack of correspondence reflects Sloane’s close proximity to the garden and opportunities to see Miller in person. (Though, arguably, it might also suggest that Sloane was disconnected from the garden.)

The Physic Garden, Chelsea: men botanizing in the garden. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
The Physic Garden, Chelsea: men botanizing in the garden. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Richard Richardson, maintained a garden of his own at his home in North Bierley. His private garden earned a reputation as the best in North England and housed both native and foreign plants, including a hot house for growing exotic fruits. Richardson collected for his garden himself on explorations as well as obtained specimens through his associations with other private and public gardens. From his letters to Sloane, Richardson appears passionate about exotic specimens, whether it was acclimatizing them to English conditions or fabricating greenhouses to mimic their native growing conditions. This was a much different approach to specimens than Sloane’s.

Richardson mentioned his garden in North Bierley several times to Sloane. It contained botanicals that even the Apothecaries’ Chelsea Physic Garden lacked. Richardson obtained plants for his personal garden from public gardens, such as the Edinburgh Physic Garden. This exchange of plants between private and professional gardens is an interesting feature of English gardens.

These private collectors were also part of an exchange network with Dutch and French professional gardens. One reason was that the men who were collecting, like Richardson, had the wealth and leisure to maintain a garden and were associated with scientific societies like the Royal Society of London. Their collection of botanicals was not just for aesthetic reasons or to display their status, but their scientific functions gave collectors the authority and expertise to trade with the professional gardens of physicians and apothecaries.

In a letter to Sloane dated 13 November 1725, Richardson mentioned an “unfortunate accident” that occurred to some “scotch plants” from the Physic Garden at Edinburgh which he “proposed to have brought back … for my garden.” In addition to collecting from other gardens to fill his own, Richardson mentioned also wanting to make his collecting habits useful to others by collecting plants from northern England for the Chelsea Physic Garden and Mr. Miller. Unfortunately, he ran into some difficulties in creating such a relationship with Miller. On 8 April 1727, Richardson wrote about exchanging mosses with Miller for some seeds. On 19 November 1728, Richardson mentioned receiving a list of desired plants from Miller and had been collecting what was still in season from his garden to send to Chelsea.

Richardson’s attempt at a reciprocal relationship of exchange from his garden to the Chelsea public garden soon fell apart. By 16 March 1729, Richardson had stopped receiving letters from Miller. Even after a visit to Chelsea in the summer, during which Miller promised he would send Richardson a letter detailing which plants the garden was lacking, Richardson wrote to Sloane on 3 November 1729 that he had not received a letter of this sort. For some reason, unknown to Richardson, their amicable exchange ceased. (For more on relationship etiquette see this post regarding Abbe Bignon and Sloane).

Richardson sought out associations with other gardens, and he demonstrated great attachment to and took great care with his own garden. It is likely that Sloane received dried plant specimens or seeds from Richardson’s personal garden that had originally come from Miller at the Chelsea Garden, given that he was recieving other dried specimens from Richardson. Other than that, Sloane’s involvement in the Chelsea garden appears to have been kept separate from his desire to collect and classify, stemming instead from his desire to expand the public’s botanical knowledge and to ensure supplies of medical specimens.


The Physic Garden, Chelsea: a plan view. Engraving by John Haynes, 1751. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Eighteenth-Century English Gardens and the Exchange with Europe

By Chelsea Clark

Statue of Sir Hans Sloane in the Society of Apothecaries Physic Garden in Chelsea. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Statue of Sir Hans Sloane in the Society of Apothecaries Physic Garden in Chelsea. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The Sloane Correspondence is a rich source of information about gardening in the eighteenth century. The science of gardening at this time was a shared experience between friends and colleagues who traded specimens and cultivated their collections with great curiosity. Although gardens could be either privately or publicly managed, the collaborative aspect of gardening served many different purposes depending on the individual collectors or institutions involved.

English gardens were built for multiple purposes, from personal and private pleasure gardens to university organized and maintained medical gardens. Both the Chelsea Garden and several private upper class estate gardens during the latter half of the eighteenth century in Britain were a combination of these purposes. They were both aesthetic and practical, housing rare exotic treasures to display the owner’s status as well as contained local and distant medical botanicals for practical medicinal uses.

Apothecaries and physicians relied on many botanical remedies and thus needed access to gardens. This resulted in many of them becoming expert gardeners. According to a Parisian physician at the time, Jean Fernel, a competition between apothecaries and physicians inspired an invigorating cultivation of gardens with both common and acclimatized plants in order to maintain “dignity and authority” over the other.[1]

The Physic Garden, Chelsea: a plan view. Engraving by John Haynes, 1751. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
The Physic Garden, Chelsea: a plan view. Engraving by John Haynes, 1751. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The Chelsea physic garden was originally property of the apothecaries of London, though it fell on hard times in the early eighteenth century. Physician, Sir Hans Sloane, become benefactor to the garden because he saw the value in the botanicals it provided and its potential to provide benefical botanical knowledge for the public. Sloane saw the importance of the garden for all types of medicinal use as well as for the maintenance and growth of botanical trading within England, Europe, and the newly acquired Colonies.

In 1722, Sloane leased a parcel of his land in Chelsea to the Company of Apothecaries of London on the condition that they maintain the garden for “physick” and send the Royal Society fifty specimens per year until 2000 specimens had been given.[2] The reason given for requiring the annual gift of specimens was to encourage the constant growth of the garden and to ensue it continued to be used for its proper purpose.[3]

French gardens were similarly split between public and scholarly gardens, however French gardens were steeped in state involvement with the promotion and running of gardens. The Jardin du Roi, established in 1640, was in name and function the garden of the French King, Louis XIV.  It was also used by the Academie des Sciences for their exploration and acclimatization of botanicals and open to the public. The garden was maintained under state direction, as was the search and collecting of new specimens to fill the garden. It was managed as an economy that was “simultaneously social, financial and natural historical.”[4]

Jardin des Plantes, Perpignan. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Jardin des Plantes, Perpignan. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

French botanical collecting was tied to their colonial expansion and French collectors were most interested in botanicals with economic value.[5] As a result of higher state involvement, French motivations were focused on economic gain rather than scientific curiosity; collecting and cataloging the world’s botanicals was less of a priority, resulting in the cultivation of different types of plants than in England, which centered on medicinal rather than economical specimens.

The discussions about gardens between Sloane and many of his British correspondents did not mention any state support or involvement. Their collecting appeared to be motivated by a desire to discover all the local and exotic species and where they were naturally found. As was the case for France, English collecting in its colonies did have an economic component; however, the perceived economic value of plants was not mentioned as the primary motivator of botanical collectors.

Without immediate state direction both personal and professional English gardens became significant players in the European exchange of botanicals. English private collectors and gardeners were successful at expanding their knowledge of species and contributing to scientific knowledge, while the French were successful at extracting economic value from their exploration of plants. Even though the French gardens were open to the public, the English exchange relationship between the personal collectors and the professional gardens allowed for information about botanicals to spread freely and the development of gardens across England. English gardens had perhaps less economic value than their French counterparts, but provided an abundance of natural history knowledge and practical medicinal value for its public.


[1] Harold Cook, Matters of Exchange New Haven: Yale University Press, (2007): 31.

[2] Isaac Rand, “A Catalogue of Fifty Plants Lately Presented to the Royal Society, by the Company of apothecaries of London ; Pursuant to the Direction of Sir Hans Sloane, Bart. Bresident of the College of Physicians and Vice President of the Royal Society,” Philosophical Transactions, 32 (1722).

[3] Ruth Stungo, “The Royal specimens From the Chelsea Physic Garden, 1722-1799,” Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London 47, no. 2 (July 1993): 213.

[4] E. C. Spary, Utopia’s Garden Chicago: Chicago University Press, (2000): 51.

[5] Spary, “ “Peaches which the Patriarchs Lacked”: Natural History, Natural Resources, and the Natural Economy in France,” History of the Political Economy 35, 2003: 14-41.

Three horses standing in a field, listening to the horn of a huntsman, who is seen with his horse and hounds in the woods beyond. By Lilian Cheviot. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Straight From the Horse’s Mouth

By Jacqeuline Schoenfeld

Like Lisa Smith, I am a sucker for animal stories. As a child (and young adult) some of my favorite movies included Homeward Bound, Babe and George of the Jungle. There is something irresistible about an American Bulldog, a Golden Retriever and a Himalayan cat that are best friends. And really, a pig that herds sheep and a gorilla who talks, need I say more? Given my intrigue for a good animal story, you can imagine my excitement when I stumbled across the following letter.

In 1732, Charles Bere wrote to an unnamed recipient to inform him/her of an interesting case concerning a horse:

Peter Clarke of Hammersmith Baker did the ninth day of January 1732 produce & show me a stone taken out of his Mares gutt which weighed seaven pounds and three quarters and measured round – Twenty inches.

Three horses standing in a field, listening to the horn of a huntsman, who is seen with his horse and hounds in the woods beyond. By Lilian Cheviot. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Three horses standing in a field, listening to the horn of a huntsman, who is seen with his horse and hounds in the woods beyond. By Lilian Cheviot. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Yes. You read that correctly…

Once my initial disbelief wore off, I did a quick search in the letter database, only to learn that a similar event occurred six years earlier.  On 14 December 1726, Zabdiel Boylston from Boston, New England informed Sloane of a horse that had consumed a large stone:

The Stone I now send you was taken out of a gelding[.] [W]hen first taken out [it] weighed five pounds & about Eight ounces, … and measure[d] round one way, seventeen Inches & 3.q’rs and ye. other was sixteen Inches & 3 quarters.

Upon reading the eighteenth-century letters, I was left wondering how and why two horses would consume indigestible objects. After all, the stone consumed by the horse in Bere’s letter was only slightly smaller in circumference than a NFL regulation size football!

After searching through a few veterinarian journals, I came across an article by Dr. Aytekin et al. in which the authors describe a condition found in horses and other animals known as ‘pica’. Pica, defined “as a depraved or abnormal appetite [that is sometimes] regarded as a sign of nutritional deficiency or boredom”, is characterized by the consumption of rocks, dirt and other indigestible objects. Dr. Aytekin and his colleagues admit that researchers do not fully understand the underlying causes of pica; however, the authors suggest that a lack of certain amino acids, vitamins, soda salts or phosphates in an animal’s diet may contribute to the emergence of pica.

Could it be that the horses discussed in Bere and Boylston’s letters were acting out of boredom or simply attempting to supplement their diets? This cannot be said with certainty but it seems like a plausible explanation for their unconventional dietary substitutions.

And while we are on the subject of unconventional diets… I think this is a good time to redirect our attention to a story from the English county of Gloucestershire earlier this year. According to an article in the Daily Mail (18 March 2015), it seems that packs of wild boars have taken a liking to hunting and eating newborn lambs in the Forest of Dean, a popular tourist site.

According to veterinarian Clare Harvey (quoted in the article), it is not strange for boars to consume meat, after all they are omnivores–but the boars’ disposition to hunt suggests that “they may have developed a taste for fresh meat”. In other words, the consumption of meat does not necessarily suggest attempts at dietary substitutions or even signal strange behavior–rather, it is the manner in which these boars have acquired meat that is less than conventional.

A wild boar on the run. Etching by J.E. Ridinger. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
A wild boar on the run. Etching by J.E. Ridinger. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

So, what does a horse that swallowed a stone the size of a football and herds of wild boars roaming the Forest of Dean hunting lambs have to do with natural history in the Sloane letters? Then and now, our desire to understand the world around us seems strongest when it comes to explaining instances that seem strange or out of the ordinary. This is as evident in Bere and Boylston taking the time to write down and share their observations as Dr. Harvey’s attempts to explaining the boars’ taste for fresh meat. But Boylston’s letter also hints at the element of entertainment involved in looking at curiosities.

A sheep and two lambs standing on a meadow, with one of the lambs feeding on the mother. Etching by C. Lewis after E. H. Landseer. 1873 By: Edwin Henry Landseerafter: Charles George Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
A sheep and two lambs standing on a meadow, with one of the lambs feeding on the mother. Etching by C. Lewis after E. H. Landseer. 1873 By: Edwin Henry Landseerafter: Charles George Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

According to Boylston, several people were present when the stone was removed from the gelding and many more came to see it. What really makes me smile is Boylston’s tone as he explains, “altho [the stone] was not found in an Humane … it was in one of ye. most noble of ye. brutal kind[.]” So here we are, almost 300 years later and our ability to find wonder and entertainment in natural phenomena persists.

Vesalius, initial T: putti killing dog, 1555.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

On Hans Sloane’s Copies of De Humani Corporis Fabrica

Title page. Vesalius, De humani corporis fabrica libri septum, 1555. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Title page. Vesalius, De humani corporis fabrica libri septum, 1555. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Thanks to Felicity Roberts, I’ve learned that a copy of Vesalius’ De Humani Corporis Fabrica Librorum Epitome (Basel, 1543) once owned by Hans Sloane went up for auction at Christie’s on 15 July.  Although the list price was a £70,000-£100,000, the book ended up going for £60,000.

Christie’s has just started a Discovery series of short videos to highlight pieces with particularly interesting histories. First up: Sloane’s book! Go take a look at “The ‘Google Maps’ of the Human Body” now.

What I love about this video and post is how well it captures Sven Becker’s enthusiasm when it came to finding something unexpected in the course of researching the book’s provenance. The sale also caused some excitement on the C-18L listserv, with some contributors wondering whether the book had been stolen or its notes forged.

Alison Walker, who leads the British Library’s Sloane Printed Books Project, attended the auction and has been tracing the book’s provenance in more detail. This has required a bit of digging, but the process involved in uncovering a book’s history is fascinating. It’s worth quoting Alison’s findings (which she shared in an email to me) at length. She reports that the book, which was from the Duke of Westminster’s collection,

seems to have been sold as a duplicate by the British Museum in 1769, and appears as lot 336 on p. 12 of S. Baker and G. Leigh, A Catalogue of the Duplicates of the British Museum which will be sold by auction… April 4 1769 and nine following days, London, 1769. Normally one would expect to see a British Museum duplicate sale stamp on the book, but it seems to have been omitted in this case. It is listed on p. 54v of the interleaved copy of J.A. van der Linden, Lindenius renovatus, 1686, which Sloane used as his catalogue of Latin medical books. The book may have been acquired by Sloane in the 1720s or 1730s, though there is no precise acquisition date in his catalogue, and no indication of its previous provenance.

Vesalius, De humani corporis fabrica, 1543. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Vesalius, De humani corporis fabrica, 1543.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

She has now included the book in the Sloane Printed Books database–a useful tool for suggesting the comings and goings of books in Sloane’s library over the years. (And, believe me, it is easy to lose track of time when playing with the database.)

The British Library still holds several other versions of De Humani Corporis Fabrica once owned by Sloane, including an especially fancy Epitome printed on vellum. And along the way, the British Library has sold off other copies from Sloane’s collection. For example, one 1555 edition of the book now at the Royal Society library was purchased during a duplicate sale in 1830.

Although there was a bit of excited speculation about fraud or theft surrounding this sale, a bit of historical detective work can uncover a much more prosaic explanation. Records do sometimes get lost–or never created, as in this case.

The featured image: putti killing a dog, from book 7 of De Humani Corporis Fabrica (Basel, 1555). Credit: Wellcome Library, London. I’ve always hated putti.

Second Battle Of Virginia Capes. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Bad Blood and Indecent Expressions

By Matthew DeCloedt

Standing before the Jamaican government’s ‘Councill’ in the spring of 1689, an unnamed doctor explained how comments spoken under his breath could have been construed as defamatory. He was, the man said, simply unhappy with how the administration had treated him and might have accidentally said as much in the presence of others.

Bow Street. Credit:
Bow Street Trial. Credit:

Allegations of slander and libel were common features of public life in eighteenth-century Britain and its colonies. Manuals were even available to help those accused of having spoken ill of the government defend themselves.[1]

Proof, in the form of witness testimony or a presumption of law, was required to convict an accused of libel in the 1680s. Such evidence established the defendant had the requisite state of mind when publishing defamatory material.[2] Without prima facie proof of sedition in the form of a printed text, the Council needed witnesses to substantiate the charge. In this case, it was the doctor’s word against his accusers’.

According to a letter written by H. Watson, resident of Jamaica, the doctor accounted for his actions before the tribunal by stating:

yt on ye sight of ye fleet sailing away [from Jamaica], & ye paym’t of his money not secured he might passionatly utter many indecent expressions, but not intentionally.

The doctor appealed to the rash character in every reasonable person, arguing that such sentiments could come out of anyone’s mouth. Hans Sloane must have disagreed, for it appears that he himself levelled the allegation against the doctor.

Sloane’s accusation of slander was substantiated by two witnesses who claimed they “heard [the doctor] say ye very same he spoke [to Sloane], w’ch they declared on their oaths”. Fortunately for the doctor, “severall witnesses… who were [near]by… either did not hear or would not remember w’t he spoke”.

Second Battle Of Virginia Capes. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Second Battle Of Virginia Capes. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Watson does not divulge the Council’s final determination, so it is unclear whose word convinced it one way or the other. Regardless, the doctor claimed he would appeal to the Prince of Orange if he were found culpable. He expected “sudden releif from Coll Molesworth who is expected here [in Jamaica] w’th as much earnestness, as ye Turks expect Mahomet”.[3] In Watson’s view, therefore, relief was not anticipated anytime soon.

Was Sloane simply a patriot, unwilling to abide a slight against the Crown? Or, was there bad blood between himself and the doctor?

In the Natural History of Jamaica Sloane relays an account of one ‘Sir H. M. aged about 45, lean, sallow, coloured, his eyes a little yellowish, and belly a little jutting out, or prominent’. The Gentleman’s Quarterly claimed some years later that this patient of Sloane’s was Sir Hender Molesworth, not Sir Henry Morgan, as was previously supposed.

If this is true, Molesworth was one of Sloane’s patients and followed his instructions for a time. He seemed to be improving, but grew frustrated with the slow progress and consulted another physician. According to Sloane, his condition was not ameliorated by his personal habits. Perhaps it was the fact that he was unable

to abstain from Company, he sate up late, drinking too much, whereby he[…] had a return of his first symptoms.[4]

Sloane implored Molesworth to listen to his advice. Dr. Rose shared Sloane’s view and they convinced him to follow their directions once again.

Molesworth was getting better, but took a turn for the worse: “On this alarm he sent for three or four other Physitian”. The latter came to a conclusion that contradicted Sloane. The treatment Molesworth followed “almost carried him off”. Instead of going back to Sloane, he contracted a black doctor and his condition grew worse still. Finally: “He left his Black Doctor, and sent for another, who promis’d his Cure, but he languished, and his Cough augmenting died soon after.”

Molesworth died July 27, 1689. This is shortly after Watson’s letter reached Sloane, so it is possible that nothing ever came of Sloane’s accusation. Sloane might have taken offence at being replaced by a black doctor, choosing to exact revenge through trumped-up charges of treason. Whatever the case, there was likely a personal angle to the matter and Sloane does not seem to have acted as a disinterested protector of the Crown. Molesworth may have uttered indecent expressions, but Sloane was just as willing to dispense with good manners and reply in kind.

[1] C. R. Kropf, “Libel and Satire in the Eighteenth Century”, Eighteenth-Century Studies 8, 2 (1974-5), 153.

[2] Philip Hamburger, “The Development of the Law of Seditious Libel and the Control of the Press”, Stanford Law Rev (1985), 707.

[3] Could ‘Coll Molesworth’ have been a relation of Sir Hender Molesworth, whom he expected would come to his rescue?

[4] Sir Hans Sloane, A Voyage to the Islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica (London: B.W., 1707), Volume 1, xcviii-xcix.

A hare. Coloured wood engraving.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Of a leveret brought up by a cat

Tales of cross-species ‘friendships’ always warm the cockles of our modern hearts. It is difficult not to be charmed by accounts of Koko the Gorilla’s attachment to kittens and her grief when one died, or tales of a tiger suckling piglets . Early modern people were also fascinated by these odd pairings. In 1654, for example, John Evelyn reported that he “saw a tame lion play familiarly with a lamb” at a London fair. (Evelyn also stuck his hand in the lion’s mouth to touch its tongue—not sure I’d have taken my chances, no matter how tame the lion!)

In 1743, Montague Bacon, the Rector of Newbold Verdun in Leicestershire, offered up another strange pairing for the interest of Sir Hans Sloane (BL Sloane MS 4066, f. 127). “Pray tell Sr. Hans”, he wrote to Captain Tublay, “that my brother has got a Leveret, that has been suckled & bred up by a cat”. Not quite lion and lamb status, but still…

The cat & the Leveret are as fond of one another, as can be. The Cat take’s it to be of her own kind, & sometimes bring’s live mice to it to teach it it’s own hare: and when she see’s, that the Lever[e]t has no relish of the employment, she boxe’s her ears for not learning her bus’ness, as she should do.

A hare. Coloured wood engraving. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
A hare. Coloured wood engraving.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Both animal odd couples were clearly curiosities, but viewers would have had very different interpretations. During the Interregnum (1649-1660), the lion and lamb pairing would have had religious and political resonance. Religiously, it evoked Isaiah 11:6 and the dual nature of Christ (lion as conquest and lamb as sacrifice): “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.”

"Peaceable Kingdom of the Branch" by Edward Hicks - under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
“Peaceable Kingdom of the Branch” by Edward Hicks – under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Politically, the lion and lamb pairing also showed up in Royalist works celebrating the return of the king, such as the popular ballad “The King Enjoys His Own Again”:

When all these shall come to pass,
then farewell Musket, Pipe and Drum,
The Lamb shall with the Lyon feed,
which were a happy time indeed:
O let us all pray, we may see the day,
that Peace may govern in his Name:
For then I can tell all things will be well
When the King comes Home in Peace again

The leveret and cat pairing was a much cozier domestic matter. It took place within the home of Bacon’s brother and the cat acted as mother to the leveret, even trying to teach the leveret to hunt. Bacon emphasised the cat’s maternal instinct as overriding its predatorial instinct, so much so that he never even indicated why and how the cat came to be suckling the leveret. (But perhaps it was something like this account of another cat and leveret.) England of 1743 was at peace, but the ever-expanding British empire that brought them into contact with new people, lands and animals: could they be brought under British domestication, too? A homely little tale of predator and prey living together might have been very appealing.

Bacon’s interpretation also has similiarities with our own modern tendencies in anthropomorphization; we look for examples of nurturing behaviours–our own best selves, as reflected in the animal world. But his interpretation differs from ours, as well. Where we might read the animal behaviour as emotion (as with the video showing Koko’s grief), Bacon was more circumspect in making that comparison, describing the pair “as fond of one another, as can be”.

In any case, the real animal curiosity as far as Bacon was concerned, was not the cat and leveret relationship. In the letter, he gave as many lines to another point of interest:

I know not whether it be a curiosity to mention, that our neighbor Mr. Crawley has a breed of white, quite white Game hares. The young ones are speckled, when young, but grow quite white, as they grow up. Sr. Hans can tell whether these things are worth mentioning or not.

Now that line of enquiry is very different from our modern interests, but certainly fit with the eighteenth-century attempts to classify the world around them. When looking at accounts of animal friendships, then and now, context is indeed everything.