The Ark Gallery explores the life and collection of John Tradescant (c.1580–1638), the gardener who founded Britain’s first museum open to the public at his Lambeth house.
Tradescant was born in around 1580, and his life is a mystery until, in 1609, he is recorded as a gardener at Hatfieldeld House in Hertford-shire to Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury, the Minister to King James I who discovered the Gunpowder Plot. He became gardener to King Charles I and his French wife, Henrietta Maria, and in the 1620s moved to Lambeth and began a garden of botanical specimens.
Tradescant collected ‘curiosities’: natural and man-made, whether a weapon or a work of art. The Ark was intended to represent the nature, art, religions, and ways of life of all nations on earth. The collection was added to by his travels to Europe, Algeria and Russia and by gifts from the ship captains, botanists and patrons whom he knew, and by his son, also called John (1608–62), who was gardener to King Charles II and travelled to Virginia.
‘The Ark’ was open to anyone who could pay sixpence. Elias Ashmole (1617–92) was a lawyer, astrologer, and scholar who believed the Tradescants’ Ark was important to the advancement of knowledge. He published a catalogue on the younger Tradescant’s behalf, and persuaded him to bequeath the collection to him. At John’s death his widow Hester contested the legacy. But in 1683 the collection travelled up the Thames to Oxford to become the foundation of The Ashmolean Museum.
300 years later, objects once in The Ark have returned to Lambeth in a loan of exceptional generosity by the Ashmolean Museum, and the Oxford Museum of Natural History.
Image: John Chase