Paintings found behind a bookshelf at the Harvard Botanical Museum

When Richard Evans Schultes ’37, Ph.D. ’41 became director of the Botanical Museum at Harvard University in 1967, he could not imagine that he would soon discover a collection of beautiful paintings hidden behind a bookshelf in the departmental library. These paintings depicted all the plants mentioned by Shakespeare and showed how extensive Shakespeare’s knowledge of botany was.

In the spring semester of 1968, I was studying English at Harvard, looking for a course in biology; during the “shopping period” I tasted and decided to take Schultes’ course, “Plants and Human Affairs”. Schultes was an “ethnobotanist,” someone who studied how different cultures use plants. He was a fascinating teacher and his class had his own classroom dedicated to the Botanical Museum, a room filled with Amazonian artifacts he had collected. Each year, he demonstrated to his class how to fire an Amazonian blowgun that he kept in class.

Schultes had traveled to the jungles of the northwestern Amazon region and lived with indigenous peoples for 14 years before joining Harvard faculty, collecting plants that were only known to local tribes and trying to save this knowledge, before it disappeared in the form of the tribes has adapted to modern cultures. He was particularly interested in plants with possible medicinal uses, such as arrow poisons which could be used as muscle relaxants in surgery. He described his way out of the jungle at the start of World War II to find a request from the US government asking him to return to the forest in search of rubber trees, as natural rubber was needed for the tires of military planes. and the war had cut off access. to the rubber plantations of the South Pacific.

The course required an essay and I decided to combine it with my interest in Shakespeare by writing about the plant poisons mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays. It has always been an axiom at Harvard that if a student can justify an unusual idea, it will be approved, and Schultes welcomed the subject. After finishing it, he invited me to submit it for publication in the botanical journal he edited, Economic botany. So, I had the opportunity to work with him for the next two years as I revised and tweaked it for publication. But there was also another reason why Schultes approved of my subject.

He said he recently found a spectacular collection of 19th-century paintings depicting Shakespeare’s plants hidden behind a row of books in the departmental library. He says that one of his predecessors, Oakes Ames (director of the Botanical Museum from 1923 to 1945) found the paintings in a bookstore along the Seine during a trip to Paris, bought the collection, donated them at the Museum, then apparently hid and forgot it behind the row of books.

Illustrations by Rosa M. Towne from Knowledge of Shakespeare’s plants
Artwork by Rosa M. Towne and photography by Edward Tabor

Rosa M. Towne (1827-1909) painted these illustrations between 1888 and 1898, including all the plants mentioned by Shakespeare in his plays and long poems. In an introductory note to the collection, she wrote that she decided to do the paintings using “living plants and trees” as models as much as possible. She accompanies each painting with a quote from Shakespeare in which it is mentioned.

The collection included 73 paintings of 182 plants, botanically accurate and mostly depicted either in bloom, or with berries or other fruits. When Shakespeare described several plants in one sentence, she painted those two or three plants in one painting, artfully put together but separated enough to appreciate the beauty of each. She also sometimes grouped plants from different parts together, such as holly and mistletoe, in this case perhaps because they are both evergreen and associated with Christmas.


(1) Holly.
As you like it, Act II, sc. 7.
(2) Mistletoe.
Titus Andronicus, Act II. sc. 3.
Artwork by Rosa M. Towne and photography by Edward Tabor

Schultes was so impressed with the collection that he decided to seek out a publisher to make high quality reproductions which could be bound like a book. Over the next several years, Schultes informed me of his search for a suitable publisher, a search that took much longer than expected. He often met editors on business or pleasure trips, including trips to the UK where he was most hopeful of finding a suitable editor, but he couldn’t find one who could answer. to the high quality standards he felt these paintings deserved. .

Finally, he found a printmaking company in Louisville, Kentucky, which, on trial, was able to produce beautiful reproductions on heavyweight, artistic-grade paper. Even after the editor’s selection, production was laborious and lasted for several years. In 1974 a limited edition of 2,500 copies was published under the title Knowledge of Shakespeare’s plants. Several hundred copies were provided to the Botanical Museum for sale in its gift shop, along with individual unbound pages to be sold as works of art. The proceeds from these sales set up a fund to purchase books for the museum library.

Schultes invited me to the book’s publication party in 1974 at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where Rosa Towne had once enrolled as a mature student. At the publication party, I saw the book published for the first time. It was a large, leather-bound, 15-inch-long folio edition, a format unusual in modern times, even for art books. But a folio was particularly appropriate for a publication related to Shakespeare, since the so-called “First folio” of his plays contained many works for which no other copy has survived. So just as Shakespeare’s folio preserved his pieces, the folio of Towne’s paintings saved them from obscurity, ensuring their availability for future generations.


(1) Blackberries. (2) Cherries.
Venus and Adonis
Artwork by Rosa M. Towne and photography by Edward Tabor

The discovery of Rosa Towne’s paintings by Oakes Ames, and their rediscovery and publication in book form by Schultes, were also important cultural rescues for the future of Shakespeare’s studies. The book shows the breadth of Shakespeare’s botanical knowledge, provides a compendium of the 182 plants we know Shakespeare was familiar with, and lists their common and scientific names. It provided, for the first time, a unique collection of botanically accurate paintings that would help researchers and critics visualize exactly what Shakespeare had in mind when he mentioned a plant or when a plant played a key role in it. action of one of its parts, like the poison of vegetable origin used by Hamlet’s uncle to kill Hamlet’s father, the king.

I wish I had owned a copy of Knowledge of Shakespeare’s plants, but at the time, it was selling for $ 1,000 ($ 5,200 in 2021 dollars), and that was way beyond what I could afford. Several years later, I had to express this wish to Schultes, and he offered to make a copy available to me if I made a cash donation to the Museum. Before he sent me the book, I asked him to write it down. Its inscription, dated September 16, 1981, read: “Shakespeare means a lot of things to a lot of people. The lover of plants finds him in many ways a worshiper of nature.

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