In the early seventeenth century there was eager interest, among the leisured classes, in fruits from the Mediterranean and beyond, not least for the kitchen gardens and orchards of England’s grand houses. The volume of charming, vibrant, almost primitif watercolour paintings of orchard fruits on the branch, popularly known as `Tradescants’ Orchard’, is a precious and fragile relic of this era of broadening horticultural horizons. This manuscript, traditionally associated with the renowned plantsmen, the John Tradescants, was among the eclectic collections of Elias Ashmole (1617-1692), which came to form the basis of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Then, in 1860 it was transferred to the Bodleian Library. It has been quietly recognized as a mysterious treasure, yet the paintings raise many unanswered questions. Who painted them, and for whom? What was their purpose? Only one apple is represented – were there once others, now missing? Whose handwriting appears in the manuscript? Why did the artist paint wildlife such as birds, frogs and butterflies on many of the folios? All sixty-six of the original illustrations are reproduced here in facsimile for the first time, following a general introduction which maps out the mystery of why and how these beguiling watercolours came to be commissioned and made.
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