James Bateman — a tale of gardens, orchids and ceramics

Posted on June 1st, 2011 by Charles Boot

Paul Baker writes:

July 2011 sees the 200th anniversary of the birth of James Bateman (1811–97), Fellow of the Linnean and Royal Societies, Vice-President of the Royal Horticultural Society and the creator of the extraordinary world image garden at Biddulph Grange (right) in Staffordshire. Bateman is celebrated as a botanist who orchestrated the collection of tropical plants and published the largest book (in 10 volumes) solely devoted to orchids, The Orchidaceae of Mexico and Guatemala (1837–43). He was also the author of two other major works on the cultivation of orchids; A Second Century of Orchidaceous Plants (1867) and a Monograph of Odontoglossum (1874).

The plate from ‘Orchidacea’ depicting Laelia Majalis used on the Spode plate below

The plate from ‘Orchidacea’ depicting Laelia Majalis used on the Spode plate below

Although much research was carried out at the time that the National Trust took over the garden in 1988 comparatively little has been written about James Bateman and the influences affecting his garden since Peter Hayden’s publication of Biddulph Grange, Stafford: Victorian Garden Rediscovered (1988). Inevitably, Bateman’s interests in botanical matters have tended to overshadow his wider interest and connections. However a series of unrelated episodes have recently combined to shed more light on the Bateman’s life. The acquisition in 2002 of land on the east side of his house, included the former Geological Gallery, long used as workshop during the time the estate was a hospital (1922–91), provided an opportunity to better understand the connections between Bateman’s Millinerian beliefs and the design and purpose of his garden. Recent research work by Pam Wolliscroft, the former Curator of the Spode Museum Trust, has uncovered further links with the world of ceramics and a discovery in the Enville Hall Plant Book of 1832–33 has demonstrated just how extensive was Bateman’s orchid collecting and dealing at an early age.

The concept of a link between the Millenarian belief of the imminent second coming and the layout of the garden at Biddulph has been the subject of some literary discussion. The geological gallery was a narrow corridor that lay to the north side of the service courtyard, and connected the house with the garden on the east side. Bateman’s knowledge of mineralogy is understandable given his family’s interests as mine owners. His father, John Bateman, had an established fossil collection. The wider interest, as demonstrated by the geological maps in the Gallery, arose from the increasing need to understand geological properties as civil engineering expanded during the industrial revolution.

China, part of Bidulph Grange gardens. Photo by Letitia Yetman

China, part of Bidulph Grange gardens. Photo by Letitia Yetman

We know from the diaries of Edward Cooke, James Bateman’s friend who helped design the garden and its structures, that they visited the Great Exhibition and it is highly probable that they would have gone on to view the sculptures designed by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins at Sydenham. A link exists with sculptures in the garden by Hawkins; the Frog in ‘China’, the Dragons on the Temple roof and the Ape of Thoth. Bateman would almost certainly have been familiar with the work of William Buckland, Reader in Mineralogy at Oxford just before Bateman went up to Keble College. In 1829 Buckland had been commissioned to write the 9th Bridgewater Treatise entitled ‘Geology and Mineralogy considered with reference to Natural Theology’. The illustrations in this book may have been an inspiration for Bateman’s layout of his gallery at Biddulph. James Bateman was, as were the majority of his peers, a believer in a doctrine of creation based on the Genesis narrative. However, the advancements in geology were leading to a recognition that much longer time periods were needed to explain the sequences and processes that had created them. Many involved in the advancement of geology as a science such as William Buckland were ordained Doctors of Divinity. Buckland had expounded a theory of Geology based on a series of cataclysmic events to explain the changes evidenced by sequences of strata. Each geological period was ended by an event that exterminated all living forms and resulted in new series of plants, animals and topography based on new geological strata. In such a world the biblical flood was but one example of a cataclysmic event.

This is in accord with what we know of Bateman’s views. He was opposed to the use of hybrids for most of his life believing they were a manual intervention in the divine process. In a lecture to the RHS in 1864 he argued that Plant Hunters, men such as Douglas, Fortune and others had a finite number of plants to discover, “they will find their occupation gone”. The situation would only be resolved in Bateman’s view by divine intervention. Brent Elliott in his book Victorian Gardens writes ‘… the garden at Biddulph Grange, by evoking vanished and alien civilizations, served as an affirmation that the millennium was coming.’ However there remains a doubt about Bateman’s motives in establishing the gallery and linking it to the layout of the garden. If he really believed a great statement about the approaching millennium and a rebuttal of Darwin’s theory was required then why were his views and Biddulph not more closely associated? Kemp in his Gardeners’ Chronicle article of 1862 makes only a passing comment about the layout of the Gallery being in accordance with the days of Mosiac cosmology. As far as we have been able to ascertain there no other contemporary accounts of the gallery.

In 1837 Bateman had begun to publish The Orchidaceae of Mexico and Guatemala, dedicated to Queen Adelaide. As only 125 copies of the edition were published, surviving copies are comparatively rare. Bateman prepared the text, and commissioned leading botanical artists to prepare hand painted illustrations for the book. Most of the orchids depicted had been collected by George Ure Skinner on his behalf. The list of subscribers includes William Taylor Copeland who along with his associate Thomas Garrett formed the Copeland & Garrett partnership that had taken over the Spode business in 1833. Bateman was already a customer of the firm having commissioned a tea service for his 21st birthday decorated with his own hand drawn illustrations of Knypersley Hall Batman’s home until 1840 and other local landmarks. It is more than likely that the Bateman family and Copeland moved in the same circles; Copeland was a director of The North Staffordshire Railway and John Bateman had persuaded the company to build a branch through the Biddulph Valley. It is, therefore, not surprising to find Copeland amongst the list of subscribers. However what had happened to Copeland’s edition was unknown until 2006 when archive material was transferred from Spode Ltd to the Spode Museum Trust. Amongst these were lithographs and the remnants of a large book on orchids. The museum’s curator was able to identify these as being from Orchidaceae of Mexico and Guatemala and thus Copeland’s original copy which had clearly been used as a design source by the firm’s ceramic artists and engravers. The importance of the find was further reinforced by the discovery of a copper engraving plate with an orchid design taken from the book.

A modern reproduction (below) was made which is now on display at Biddulph Grange Garden. Whether this was part of a set based on the illustrations and for whom it was made remains a mystery.


A further link between Biddulph Grange and the local ceramics industry came to light when a plate (below) depicting the south side of the original Bateman’s house was brought into Biddulph Grange. It bears a mark of the Davenport Pottery at Longport dated to 1870–87.


Bateman’s early interest in orchid collecting has been well documented. The publication of Orchidaceae of Mexico and Guatemala established Bateman’s reputation as a leading authority on tropical orchids at a comparatively early age. Bateman, whilst still a student at Oxford, in 1833 had commissioned Thomas Colley to collect orchids for him in British Guiana and in 1834 George Ure Skinner had begun to send him orchids. Therefore the discovery of a list of ‘Knypersley Orchidea’ from the Enville Hall Plant Book of 1832–33, prior to these dates, raises interesting questions about the extent of his orchid collection at an earlier period. There are a total of 149 orchid varieties listed and the plant book also records purchases. Bateman described himself as being “impatient at the tardy rate at which new species crossed the seas” as the reason for dispatching Thomas Colley, implying at least that he was already familiar with introductions prior to that date. There is evidence that Bateman had been cultivating tropical fruits in the Knypersley hot houses prior to his being infected by the “Orchido-mania which now pervades all.” However this latest discovery suggests that James was collecting and dealing at a much earlier age, he would have been in his late teens, than has hitherto been accepted or his father John Bateman may have been an established collector and James obtained his passion and plants from him.

The Society will be visiting Biddulph Grange the day before our AGM, cost £10 (£19 if not a member of the National Trust). Download the Booking Form for this and the rest of the AGM programme.

An exhibition and conference at the Potteries Museum in July will explore this further

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