It was with some trepidation that I went about London over the next few days, but the friends I was staying with said it was just a fact of life in the city. She had lived through the IRA bombings of the seventies, and a bomb had gone off a block away from where she lived, making the whole apartment block shake.
I was only in the city for a few days, at a conference on Life Writing at Kings College London. It was an excellent conference, much of it centred around memory, digital media and writing lives. I presented on a digital version of ecobiography, artist Pat Hoffie’s ‘ground truthing’ and met some great people.
After the conference I caught the train to Cambridge, where I’d arranged to look at the Cambridge University Herbarium. It holds a number Georgiana’s specimens, as well as those of other Australian collectors such as Allan Cunningham, and several collected by Charles Darwin on his voyage on the Beagle. This was a new herbarium, part of the Sainsbury Laboratory (the plants were moved there in 2011), with the same compactors I’d seen at Kew and an air filtration system. This was important because many of the specimens had been dipped in a solution containing mercury to preserve them (before collectors worked out that mercury was dangerous), and each time the compactors were opened, mercury wafted out. The technician who worked at the herbarium and who showed me around needed to have her mercury levels tested regularly. Meanwhile John Lindley, first Professor of Botany at University College London, developed dementia towards the end of his life, and it is thought that mercury might have contributed to this.
The technician had kindly laid out Georgiana’s specimens for me to look at and photograph. There were 25 of these, but potentially hundreds more are in the collection, which houses one million specimens altogether. I was struck by the art in the arrangement of the dried specimen on the page, which testifies to her sense of craft and elegance.
The technician also directed me to the letters of John Lindley, which had been transcribed, catalogued and bound into a volume. There were a handful to Mangles, although they didn’t contain much of substance. Others discussed rates of payment to collectors, which I thought significant as Georgiana was paid nothing, although Mangles sent her and her husband gifts. Some were to Miss Drake, the illustrator I mentioned in my previous post. It was becoming clear to me that Mangles, if he wasn’t completely enmeshed in botanical networks at the time, was at the least very aware of who the important players were: Lindley, Hooker, the Loudons and Loddiges.
When I finished at the herbarium I wandered around the town, which was very pretty (aside from the hideous shopping centre which was under renovation). Students had just finished their exams and gathered in clumps among the tourists, clutching bottles of champagne. Beside the river, people lay in the long, sun-warmed grass, and there were bicycles galore. To my delight, on a bar outside some railings designed to stop people locking up their bikes, there was the wrong end of a pineapple.