I’m sure many of you will know the painting of Charles II being offered a pineapple by his gardener, John Rose. It has been widely used to demonstrate that British horticulture had become so advanced by the later 17thc that it was possible to grow a pineapple in London.
Unfortunately it would seem many writers have fallen for the wanton charms of Google and merely repeated what they found on the internet without doing any further research for themselves. Had they done so they would have discovered the painting probably isn’t quite as simple to interpret as it might appear.I’m sure the king would have been very grateful for the gift of a home-grown pineapple – or he would have been if he had actually received one that had been home-grown by his gardener. Indeed he might have been so pleased that he commissioned a painting to commemorate the event. Unfortunately he is rather unlikely to have done so. Yet the legend persists. Why?
So…did it happen? If so, when? Why was it/would it have been important?
Its very difficult to know who grew the first pineapple in Britain, or even in Europe but one thing is pretty clear – it wasn’t John Rose, Charles II’s gardener, talented and justifiably famous though he undoubtedly was. Read on to find out more….
Pineapples must have been encountered by Elizabethan adventurers and explorers, and they certainly make their first appearances in print in translations of travel accounts. Richard Eden’s The history of trauayle in the VVest and East Indies of 1577, a translation of an early Spanish account of the New World, is the earliest mention I can find and it explains the fairly obvious reason why pineapples themselves probably didn’t make it to London.
It recounts how “The most puissant prince Ferdinandus, declared that he had eaten of another fruite brought from those landes, being full of scales, with keyes, much lyke a pineapple in fourme and colour, but in tendernes equal to melow pepons, and in taste exceedyng al garden fruites: for it is no tree, but an hearbe, much like vnto an archichoke, or Acantho: … I haue eaten none of these fruits: for of a great number which they brought from thence, only one remayned vncorrupted, the other being putrified by reason of the long voyage. Al suche as haue eaten of them newly geathered in their natiue soyle, do marueylously commende theyr sweetenesse and pleasaunt taste.”
I fell into a trap here initially, which you may have done too reading that passage. I assumed that Eden was talking about another fruit that resembled a pineapple. In fact I think the passage refers to tasting a pineapple and the comparison is with withe shape of a pine-cone which were then sometimes referred to as pine-apples. Indeed the name given to them by Columbus was piña de Indes or Indian pines after the pine cone, although the indigenous name was nana or ananas
There is no doubt, however, that the pineapple makes its grand entry in English botanical literature on the title page of John Parkinson’s Paradisi in Sole of 1629, taking centre stage next to the fashionable tulip in the Garden of Eden. BUT there is no description of the fruit or the plant inside the book. It was here that I then compounded the error I made earlier because Parkinson say that the flowers of several plants resemble pineapples.
“The fair Curled haire iacinth” has at “the toppe a bush or tuft of flowers which at the first appearing , is like unto a Cone or pine-apple’, whilst “The Great Spanish Starry Iacinth or of Peru” has a similar arrangement, “fashioned in the beginning, before they bee blowne or separated” also “very like unto a Cone or pine-apple.”
Parkinson even gives the English name of Moly serotinum coniferum as the Late Pineapple Moly.
He also notes the resemblance of the artichoke which has “at the toppe one scaly head, made at first like a Pine-apple, but after growing greater the scales are more separate.”
And of course I thought at first he was comparing the flowers to pineapples whereas he is really actually talking about their resemblance to pinecones. But if Parkinson had a picture of a pineapple on the title page of his book maybe he meant both ….. but did he actually know anything about the tropical fruit?
I suspect he did because by the time he wrote his second great work Theatrum Botanicum which was published only 11 years later in 1640 he has a lengthy and accurate description of the pineapple.
It is the first account in English that I can find of “the most excellent and pleasant sweete fruite in all the West Indies.” It grows Parkinson notes on “a kinde of thistle” with “many long, hard, tough, stiffe and narrow leaves, thickest in the middle and thinne, cut in and dented about the edges, with reddish points” and “from the middle whereof riseth up a round and shorter stalk…and at the toppe one head, of the bignesse of a reasonable Muske-melon, or Pome-Citron, of a yellowish-greene before it be ripe, and more.”
Had he actually seen one?
I’d like to believe that he had rather than just reporting what he had read elsewhere such as in the works of the pioneering Spanish botanist Oviedo or the French writer Thevet who he mentions in his description. Parkinson’s comment that “they being so sweete in smell that they be perceived where they may be affare off…” and his notes about their taste “as if Rosewater, wine and sugar were mixed together” somehow have the ring of authenticity…. but sadly I suspect he was just relaying what others said thought.
Most authorities seem to belive that John Evelyn was right in saying that Pineapples were first seen in England when some were presented to Oliver Cromwell in 1657. But you can judge for yourself by checking Parkinson’s full description in Theatrum Botanicum which can be found at:
There is no other mention of the pineapple in English gardening books in the 17th century, yet it is clear that attempts were being made to import the fruit and more importantly plants and grow them not just in Britain but all over northern Europe. The Tradescants had a fruit called Ananas, malo citrio minor, in the catalogue of their museum in the section on exotic fruit.
So …. back to the painting.
Several versions exist.
The one above is on display at Ham House, but despite earlier attributions to Dankaerts it is actually a copy , painted by Thomas Stewart in 1787. It was then copied again [see left] about 1825 by George Perfect Harding.
Another is in the Royal Collection and was on display in the Paintings of Paradise exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace earlier this year, and a third, the original, probably by Dankaerts is at Houghton Hall in Norfolk.
The house in the painting is unidentified but has been tentatively associated with Dorney Court near Windsor.
All I can say is the images of Dorney I have found don’t resemble the painting in the slightest. I stand ready to be corrected of course! Dorney Court clearly think it’s true with their website stating: “Dorney is renowned for growing the first pineapple in this country which was then presented to King Charles II by head gardener John Rose.”
So does the village pub which is called The Pineapple! http://www.pineappledorney.co.uk/pub
Both claim [as do many derivative webpages] that Rose gave the pineapple to Charles in 1661 …which can only be politely described as hogwash.
What we do know for sure is that on 9th August 1661 John Evelyn noted in his diary that he “first saw the Queene-Pine bought from Barbados presented to his Majestie…the first that were ever seen in England were those sent to Cromwell foure years since.”
Barbados was the richest British colony at the time, and the fruit was probably sent by island’s wealthy elite accompanying a petition asking for the government to fix a minimum price for sugar which was the source of their wealth.
Did they send a consignment of pineapple fruit? If they did most would have rotted en route, as reported by Richard Ligon, in 1657: ‘We brought in the ship seventeen of several growths, but all rotten before we came half the way.’ Or did they perhaps send a batch of plants one at least of which reached London alive, and with an already-formed fruit that could be ripened here?
Evelyn gives the answer in his manuscript Elysium Britannicum. This was compiled over several decades at the end of the 17thc and was planned to be a vast encyclopedia of gardening knowledge. It was never finished and only published in 2000. A note in one of the margins says: “His Majesty having had divers of these [pineapples] sent him over, and even ripening after they were here in his Garden at St James, we are not altogether to disparage propagating them.” In other words garden technology was certainly good enough to keep pineapple plants alive if they survived the journey, and then to ripen immature fruit, and attempts were clearly being made to propagate new plants here too.
Such attempts were clearly unsuccessful. That pineapples could be grown from the top of the fruit or from suckers from a mature plant would obviously have been known, but the right climatic conditions were a matter of guesswork and in any case the buildings and the rudimentary heating systems available for them were inadequate and unsuitable. Yet once a plant is established and immature fruit produced it can be kept alive in less than ideal conditions. This is presumably what Rose [if indeed it was Rose] managed to achieve with plants sent over from Barbados.Certainly plants must have survived the journey more than once, because Charles used pineapples again on 14th August 1668, to impress the French ambassador, by serving them at a banquet held in his honour. Evelyn was there too and tasted “that rare fruite called the King-Pine” because ” his Majestie having cut it up, was pleased to give me a piece off his owne plate to tast of.” Sadly Evelyn was mildly disappointed by the taste because “in my opinion it falls short of those ravishing varieties of deliciousnesse described in cap. liggons history & others but possibly it might be, and certainly was, much impaired in coming so farr. it has yet a graceful acidity, but tastes more of the Quince and Melon, than of any other fruite he mentions.”
So does the picture celebrate Rose’s achievement of ripening a pineapple rather than growing one from scratch? If it does then it might also celebrate his life because it depicts the king without his trademark moustache which apparently he shaved off in 1677, and that also happens to be the year that John Rose died.
Of course that is assuming it is John Rose in the picture. This attribution comes from Horace Walpole who had the original painting hanging in the Breakfast Room at Strawberry Hill. It features in his description of the house as ” a most curious picture of Rose, the royal gardiner, presenting the first pine-apple raised in England to Charles 2d, who is standing in a garden. The whole piece is well painted , probably by Dankers. It was a present to Mr W from the Rev.Mr Pennicott of Ditton, to whom it was bequestheed by Mr London, grandson of him who was partner with Wise”. [A description of the villa of Horace Walpole,1774].
There is an episode of A Stitch in Time with fashion historian Amber Buchart, based around this portrait which can be seen here.Vanessa Remington, in The Queens gallery catalogue says that there is no record of the painting being commissioned by the crown. She suggests that instead of documenting a known historic event the original painting might have been commissioned by George London, who was Rose’s great-great-nephew and successor as royal gardener and that it was copied for other gardeners including Henry Wise. This strikes a much more realistic note.
So who was the first European gardener to raise a pineapple? That honour is generally given to Agneta Block a Dutch plant enthusiast who grew plants from seed sent over from South America, on her estate at Vijerhof near Leiden around 1687. She celebrated by having her portrait painted with the pineapple. While it was a great technical achievement just look at the size and colour of the pineapple….small and green… in the bottom right of the picture.
Block was only just ahead of several other prominent Dutch horticulturists including Jan Commelin, at Amsterdam’s botanical garden, Caspar Fagel at De Leeuwenhorst, and Pieter de la Court, who also lived near Leiden. Her success coincided with the Glorious Revolution which bought William III to the English throne, and soon after that, in 1692, William and his garden supervisor William Bentinck, purchased all of Caspar Fagel’s mature pineapple plants and and sent them to Hampton Court.
Despite their best efforts they still failed to get a pineapple to fruit. That was not achieved for another 20 years or so, when a wealthy London merchant, [who was it has to be said of Dutch origin], Sir Matthew Decker – or rather his gardener -Henry Telende [who was Dutch too] cropped one in Richmond around 1715. A painting dated 1720 celebrates this achievement, and unlike Block’s small green fruit Decker and Telende’s is fully ripe and takes pride of place as the subject of the picture..
From this point on the craze for growing them developed into a full-blown pineapple mania, so maybe more on that in another post soon!