The adventures of Maria Graham

As most people know the role of women in  garden history – ok all history – has been under-recorded and severely underrated.  But things are changing. In particular women’s  place  in the study and collection of plants in the late 18th and early 19thc has been the subject of much research and re-evaluation in recent years.  Not only did women start writing books about botany – admittedly originally aimed mainly at children and  their own sex – but there’s plenty of evidence they collected, grew and studied plants too.  Of course most of that was  done within easy reach of where they lived, but a few, notably the wives and daughters of “empire-builders” [those in commerce, the army or navy and government officials] were able to travel overseas and continue to pursue their interests. Such work  usually ended when their husband or fathers  finished a tour of duty, or died.   But today’s post  is about  Maria Graham,  an adventurous woman who decided her husband’s death was not going to be the end of her life as well…

Maria Graham by Sir Thomas Lawrence, who was a friend,  1819 NPG

Maria was born in 1785 into a genteel Scottish family, the daughter of a senior naval officer, George Dundas.  He was often away at sea and she had governesses, later attending  a boarding school in Oxfordshire.   In her “Reminiscences” her  early interest in plants stands out : “With Withering  tucked under my arm, trudging along by the side of the governess [. . .] I have often thought myself the happiest creature in the world, while she [her governess] shewed me how to compare the plants with the description in the book.”

At school,  she visited the Physic Garden in Oxford “where I began to comprehend the use of classification and arrangement.”

When she was 18, her mother having died, she moved  with her father to Edinburgh and entered the intellectually stimulating world of  the late Scottish Enlightenment. She met several leading professors from the university  who mentored this obviously bright and curious young woman, giving her the  nickname  “metaphysics in muslin.”

In 1808 her father was put in charge of  the East India Company’s dockyard in Bombay, so Maria, then aged 23, and her sister went with him  to India. On the voyage the ship called at Madeira and the Cape and she made many notes on the plants she saw, including “some from Botany Bay not yet named.”  She also collected bulbs and seeds that she thought might grow in Bombay.  More importantly she also met Thomas Graham, a young Scottish naval officer and they were married just a few months later.  In India Maria travelled widely  going as far north as Kashmir and south into Sri Lanka [then Ceylon].  She noted the country’s ‘scenery and monuments’ the ‘manners and habits of its natives and resident colonists. ’

There was also a lot about India’s natural history, especially its plants and its gardens including those of her own house in Bombay. She visited the botanic gardens in Calcutta where she met William Roxburgh the superintendent and his family and saw its famous banyan tree.


She obviously impressed Roxburgh with her knowledge and interest, and he showed her the local artists working on his project to record all the indigenous plants, which were later published as Flora Indica. She wrote“they are the most beautiful and correct delineations of flowers I ever saw. Indeed the Hindoos excel in all minute works of this kind” But she was equally attentive whether  visiting temples or private houses, to attention to recording details of the gardens and what was growing there.

from Roxburgh’s Flora Indica

In 1811 the Grahams returned to England and Maria turned her notes and diary into her first book, Journal of a Residence in India  published in 1812, followed in 1814 by Letters on India.

With the Napoleonic Wars still raging, Thomas, as a serving naval officer, was often away on duty, so Maria was left alone at home. Rather than just be “social”   she found work translating Memoirs of the War of the French in Spain for the leading publisher John Murray.  But once the conflicts were over the Graham went on a cultural tour to Italy which led to Three Months Passed in the Mountains East of Rome, during the Year 1819, although there is surprisingly little about gardens, despite visiting the Villa d’Este at least. She also wrote a biography of Nicolas Poussin, Memoirs of the Life of Nicholas Poussin in 1820.

Life took a sharp turn when, in 1821,  Thomas was given command of the wonderfully named HMS Doris, a 36-gun frigate,  which was being sent out to the Pacific coast of South America to protect Britain’s  growing trade with the newly independent  South American republics, particularly Chile. Maria was allowed to accompany him but unfortunately just after Doris rounded Cape Horn  Thomas caught a fever and died.

The English Cemetery in Valparaiso, by Maria Graham


Thomas Cochrane,
Govt Art Collection

On arriving in Valparaiso, where Thomas was buried in the English cemetery, she had many offers of support and a return to England. She turned them all down and decided to stay in Chile, renting a small house and generally ignoring the ex-pat community: “I say nothing of the English here, because I do not know them except as very civil vulgar people, with one or two exceptions”.

One of these exceptions was  Thomas Cochrane, [later Earl of Dundonald] a former high-ranking naval officer who helped organise and lead the rebel navies of Chile and Brazil during their respective successful wars of independence through the 1820s.


Maria wrote an account of her stay – Journal of a Residence in Chile during the Year 1822. And a Voyage from Chile to Brazil in 1823 – which included many observations on native flora and gardens . Her own cottage had a productive vegetable garden as did her that of her neighbours.  and there were markets full of produce too

She collected seeds, sending them  back to the botanist Robert Graham at the University of Edinburgh, whilst  bulbs  made their to Lee and Kennedy’s Vineyard Nursery in Hammersmith.

“Watering Place, Juan Fernandez” from the book “Journal of a Residence in Chile” (1824).

Wahlenbergia grahamiae, from Kew Herbarium


One of her trips was to  collect specimens on the  remote island of Juan Fernandez: “I went ashore with Lord Cochrane’s party early to-day, as I wished to make some sketches, and, if possible, to climb up some of the hills in search of plants; therefore, when they all resumed their scheme for reaching the highest point in order to see the other side of the island, I remained behind…. And now I reached a lonely spot, where no trace of man could be seen, and whence I seemed to have no communication with any living thing. I had been some hours alone in this magnificent wilderness; and though at first I might begin with exultation to cry—

            I am the monarch of all I survey

            My right there is none to dispute.

One of the plant specimens she collected there, became  the lectotype for that species,  and  was named ‘Wahlenbergia grahamiae’ in her honour.

Interestingly, as Betty Hagglund points out, however, while Maria Graham often used Linnaean terminology  correctly, she consistently combined this with a respect for the knowledge of indigenous people and always listened to them about plant names, uses and methods of propagation and cultivation. She even tried to Spanish and Portuguese to help her integrate and do this.

Maria also achieved lasting fame in another area of science because she lived through the great Chilean earthquake of 1822 and witnessed  first-hand the shifting of tectonic plates that led to mountain formation.

Her detailed account,  in the 1824  Transactions of the Geological Society provided evidence for Charles Lyell’s groundbreaking work ‘The Principles of Geology’ published in 1830. It also sparked a long and vituperative debate,    cut short when her acute powers of observation were proved correct by Charles Darwin on his Beagle journey in 1836.

Dom Pedro and Leopoldina, 1826

She finally decided to return to Britain in 1823, the route taking in several stops along the coast, including Rio de Janeiro. This was just after Brazil had proclaimed its independence from Portugal, and chosen Dom Pedro, the Crown Prince of Portugal  to take the throne. Maria was introduced to the emperor and his Austrian wife, Maria Leopoldina, presumably by Cochrane, and   somehow she was asked to become governess of their young daughter Maria da Gloria.

She returned to London to deliver the manuscripts of her book to her publisher, and  collect suitable educational material for the princess before  returning to Brazil.  Importantly while she was back in Britain, she was introduced to William Hooker, then the professor of botany at Glasgow University and later, the first director of Kew. This was to be a lifelong and very valued acquaintance.

Despite high expectations the governess role didn’t last long.  Despite being on very good terms with Leopoldina who shared her love of plants and natural history, Maria was suspected by senior courtiers of wanting to exert pro-British political influence and anglicize the princess, so she was pushed out.   As it happens she had been educating the future queen of Portugal because, in 1826 when Pedro inherited the throne of Portugal on his father’s death, he decided not to return to Europe and  abdicated  in favour of Maria’s  erstwhile charge,  Maria da Gloria, then aged just 6.

Maria stayed on for almost another year  living in a cottage near Rio de Janeiro from where she collected all sorts of natural history specimens. The zoological material later ended up in the British Museum, but the botanic material went straight  back to Hooker. It was not always easy to prepare dried specimens. She told Hooker that : “In the first place many of the plants are of a nature that will not dry they are so fleshey [sic] – & these are the most beautiful & strange –in the next place the heat & damp of the climate especially in the flowering times is very much against success. – the Mould is worse than the insects then all is so full of life that the very plants themselves under their skins often contain the seeds of destruction or degeneration ” before adding “we will do our best.”

Her best included, for example,   ‘twenty two Varieties of Fern all growing between my cottage in the Larenjeiras & the top of the Corcovado on Granite rock 1700 ft high’ .  But  she also wrote to Hooker in April 1824 that she was sending annotated drawings of the plants and seeds she was sending, often done using a microscope.

‘Heliconia formerly Musa.’ 1824
 ©  Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

“Pray in case of the fading of the colours of dried specimens might it not be advisable for me to add enough coloured sketches – say, just an outline with the real colour of a petal and a leaf? – I do not habitually draw flowers but I could do that – & also any peculiar form of seed &c. – Only let me know how I can be useful & I will try to be so.” These drawings are now in the archives at Kew, although sadly not digitized and only a few published.

Hooker was complimentary and  mentions her contributions in, for example, ‘Contributions towards a flora of South America and the islands of the Pacific’, Botanic  Miscellany (1833); and calling  her “a highly accomplished English lady” in  ‘Martius on the botany of Brazil’, Journal of  Botany in 1842.

Voyage of HMS Blonde, published under Byron’s name rather than Maria’s

Returning to Britain in 1825 Maria found that her earlier  travel accounts had been  well received and  she was offered the opportunity to write up the sad story of the King and Queen of Hawaii who had made a state visit to London but died of measles.  HMS Blonde captained by  George Anson Byron  had the mission of taking their bodies home. However there was more to it than that. Almost all naval expeditions were instructed to gather  a range of natural-historical observations and materials, and part of Graham’s editorial remit was to organize and incorporate at least some of this scientific information. Her account,The Voyage Of The H.M.S. Blonde To The Sandwich Islands, In The Years 1824–1825, did so by using  official naval papers but also the  journal kept by the ship’s chaplain Richard Bloxam and  the records of his brother the naturalist Andrew Bloxam.

Being involved in publishing meant that she began to move in intellectual/artistic circles. She was renting property between Kensington and Notting Hill Gate,  then a semi-rural area in the western suburbs of London,  which had attracted a community of artists  To cut a long story short she met and ended up marrying Augustus Callcott, a member of the Royal Academy, in 1827.  They embarked on a long European honeymoon  studying art and architecture and meeting the curators and artists who were producing a ‘revolution’ in taste.

The trip resulted in her groundbreaking Essays Towards the History of Painting and artistic debates in her salon.  Unfortunately in 1831 she ruptured a blood vessel, became extremely ill and had to have a long enforced convalescence. She used this time  to write  Description of the chapel of the Annunziata dell’Arena; or Giotto’s Chapel in Padua, and then her first and most famous book for children, Little Arthur’s History of England which were both puvblished in 1835.

Others included The Little Bracken-Burners. and Little Mary’s Four Saturdays which were both packed full of botanical information for children, wrapped up in fictional form.

The following year she published  a French version; Histoire de France du petit Louis.  In 1837 she became Lady Callcott where her husband was knighted.

She continued writing, although she was virtually an invalid and housebound, finishing her last book A Scripture Herbal, an illustrated collection of  anecdotes about plants and trees mentioned in the Bible, just before she died aged 57 in 1842. In her last years she also dictated her “Reminiscences” which were published by Rosamund Gotch as part of her biography of Maria in 1937

Buried with Sir Augustus in Kensal Green cemetery in London their grave was neglected until 2008 when in recognition of her services to Chile, as being one of the first to write about the young nation in the English, the Chilean government paid for its restoration and placed a commemorative plaque on the tombstone which names her  “a friend of the nation of Chile”.

There has been a lot of interest over the last few years in reevaluating Maria Graham’s contribution to art, science and natural history, and a number of academic articles published about her role and importance. Unfortunately most are not publicly available, but apparently Dr Carl Thompson is currently completing a monograph about her which I hope will bring her to the attention of a much wider audience, as she undoubtedly deserves.

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4 Responses to The adventures of Maria Graham

  1. Pingback: The Subjective Lens » Stranded in Valparaiso in 1822

  2. Ann Mackay says:

    Very interesting to read about Maria Graham and to know that there are women who helped to advance our knowledge of plants.

  3. Fascinating read. Thank you! A favourite research topic of mine is Miss Emily Sophia Todd (b1859) who lived and collected in Aldbourne from 1911 until shortly before her death in 1949. I can imagine that the young Miss Todd was inspired by the life and works of women like Maria Graham. Miss Todd left her collection to Swindon Museum in her will (1949). It is presently being re-boxed and volunteers are finding some interesting drawings and specimens.

    • Thank you. Miss Todd sounds really interesting too and I’ll look forward to hearing more about her when the archive is fully catalogued and investigated, so keep me in touch

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