27th July 1808: a significant date

Seaweed, Fucus tomentosus, drawn by Ellen Hutchins, 1808

Today marks a significant date in Ellen’s Story for two reasons. On 27th July 1808, 210 years ago, she wrote to fellow botanist, Dawson Turner, to tell him of her discovery of a particular seaweed, Fucus tomentosus, in fruit, and that she had made a drawing of it.

She wrote “I had great pleasure in finding Fucus tomentosus in fruit. … fearing that drying will alter its appearance, I have attempted to draw it as it appeared when recent”. EH to DT, 27th July 1808.

This was her first ever botanical drawing. She went on to produce hundreds of them; beautiful, detailed and accurate watercolour portraits of seaweeds found in Bantry Bay, South West Cork, Ireland, where she lived. Many of Ellen’s drawings are held in the Library and Archives of the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew.

The seaweed, Fucus tomentosus, had never before been seen in fruit, and it was about to be thrown out of the plant kingdom, as the experts were thinking it might be a sponge (animal), not a seaweed (plant). The discovery of it in fruit established Ellen’s credentials as a serious botanist, and the drawing showed that she was also a gifted botanical artist. In 1808 Ellen was just 23 years old and had only been studying botany for three years.

Dawson Turner was writing a major book on seaweeds, and asked Ellen for a drawing of the Fucus tomentosus that he could use in the book. The final version that she produced of the drawing was engraved and used by him as the first plate in Volume 3 of his Historia Fucorum.

Fucus tomentosus, first plate in volume 3 of Dawson Turner’s book Historia Fucorum

The copy of the book held at Kew Gardens is Dawson Turner’s own copy into which were bound the original drawings above the engraved and hand coloured plates.

Ellen’s relatives and the Assistant Archivist at Kew Gardens

Three generations of Ellen’s relatives paid a visit to Kew to mark this significant date by seeing the original drawing of the Fucus tomentosus in Volume 3 of Turner’s book. They also saw letters from Turner to Ellen, and a bound volume of over 230 of Ellen’s seaweed drawings.

Descended from Ellen’s youngest brother Sam, were Madeline (Ellen’s great great great niece), Rosie (great great great great niece), with her baby Sam (great great great great great nephew). The photo shows them with Kat Harrington, Assistant Archivist at Kew Gardens.

Rosie and Sam live on the shores of Bantry Bay, a couple of miles from Ballylickey where Ellen lived.