Sydenham Edwards was born in Brynbuga (Usk), Wales, the son of a gentleman Lloyd Pittell Edwards and Mary Reece, who were married at Llantilio Crossenny Church on September 26th 1765. He was baptized at that very same church three years later by his uncle the Rev. William Reece. It seems that the initial ‘T’ in his name was acquired in later years as he was christened Sydenham Edwards and nothing more. Although the name ‘Teast’ or ‘Teaste’ frequently appears on his work, the ‘T’ does not appear in his obituary. However, ‘Teaste’ appears on his certificate of burial and ‘Teak’ on the tablet erected to his memory at Chelsea Old Church. Several accounts claim that by 1779, his father was a teacher, probably at Henry VIII Grammar School, Abergavenny and church organist. However, the school has not been able to confirm that anyone of that name had ever taught there.
In 1779, Mr Denman, a friend of the botanist and author of Flora Londinensis, William Curtis (1746-1799), happened to be passing through Abergavenny. There, he met the youth Sydenham Edwards and was so impressed by his copies of plates from the Flora that he showed them to Curtis who promptly arranged that Edwards move to London where he was instructed in botanical illustration and set to work firstly on Flora Londinensis and later the Botanical Magazine or Flower Garden Displayed, along with James Sowerby (1757-1822) and William Kilburn (1745-1818). That chance encounter set Edwards on the road to becoming arguably the most prolific and talented botanical artist of his day. Although he did not paint orchids exclusively, a number of these plants formed the subject of his work. His first illustration for the Botanical Magazine (Vol. II, Plate 39), the carnation Franklin’s Tartar, appeared in February 1787. In a relatively short time, Edwards had become a very proficient botanical artist and from 1787-1815, it seems that as principal artist, he was responsible for all except 75 of the 1,721 watercolour drawings for the Botanical Magazine. These were subsequently engraved by F. Sansom and hand-coloured by William Graves. The subjects of Flora Londinensis were the wayside plants that grew in the environs of London. By now, however, public interest had shifted from humble native plants to the new, exotic and spectacular florist and garden flowers. As a result, in 1798, owing to financial difficulties, Curtis had found it necessary to abandon his Flora Londinensis, but not before Edwards had contributed 27 plant portraits to that work. The Botanical Magazine, however, had been produced in response to the ‘repeated solicitations of several ladies and gentlemen for a work in which Botany and Gardening, or the labours of Linnaeus and Miller, might happily be combined’ and, unlike the Flora, it portrayed the most recently introduced and most colourful species suitable for garden culture. As a result, it became very popular, so much so that in later years Curtis remarked that the Botanical Magazine had brought him pudding while his Flora had brought him only praise. This change in fortune, it would seem, was largely due to Edwards. Eventually, Sowerby and Kilburn both left the employment of Curtis but Edwards remained his faithful friend and companion on botanical expeditions until Curtis’s death in 1799.
Picture of Eulophia alta painted for the Botanical Magazine
Edwards continued to produce drawings for the Botanical Magazine until 1815 when, following a disagreement with Dr. John Sims, who had assumed its general management and directorship, he commenced on the production of the rival Botanical Register. Many have commented that his drawings for that publication are freer than those for the Botanical Magazine and it is possible that this is so since this, after all, was his own venture and therefore he had a greater degree of freedom to do as he wished. Even so, he never sacrificed botanical accuracy. Indeed, Samuel Curtis who took over the copyright of the Botanical Magazine after William Curtis’s death said of Edwards “the drawings of the Magazine were entirely his own for many years and were executed with a correctness not before known in periodical publications”. Similarly, T. H. Thomas (1910) in his address to the Cardiff Naturalists Society declared that Edwards “must be considered one of the very best artists in his style produced by the British School”. Many of his botanical studies were later copied onto earthenware or porcelain by manufacturers like Spode, Davenport, Coalport and Swansea potteries. So good an artist was Edwards that in 1792, when only 24 years of age, he exhibited for the first time at the Royal Academy of Arts, submitting a work entitled ‘a pair of goldfinches’. Between 1792 and 1814, he was to exhibit a total of twelve pictures at that prestigious institution. By the time the first volume of his Botanical Register had been published in 1815, Edwards had already been elected a Fellow of the Linnean Society. He is also credited with the discovery of the sensory function of the trigger hairs found on the leaf of the Venus Fly-trap (Dionaea muscipula) and is commemorated by the plant genus Edwardsia (now called Sophora).
Numerous works followed such as The New Flora Britannica, Collectanae Botanica, The Complete Dictionary of Practical Gardening as well as a plate depicting hyacinths for The Temple of Flora and plates for the natural history section of Rees’s Cyclopaedia. One of his more famous works, Cynographia Britannica showed the various dog breeds then known. Issued in six parts, the first cost 7s 6d and is now extremely rare, largely owing to the fact that the publication was never a great success. In 1991, a complete copy in initialled parts was estimated at £30,000. It seems that Edwards had himself been involved on occasion with the training of local sheepdogs and his numerous illustrations of hunting dogs, game bird species, decoys for waterfowl and regular contributions to Sporting Magazine would suggest that he had not forgotten his rural roots.
During his stay in London, Edwards had lived at several addresses including 23, Webber Row, St George’s Field (until c. 1792), conveniently close to William Curtis’s Botanical Garden; The Botanical Gardens, Brompton (until c.1798); 2, Charles Street, Queen’s Elm, Chelsea (until c. 1799); 11, Charles Street (c. 1803) and 5, Barrossa Place, Queen’s Elm where, even though some claim he spent his last days at Charles Street, he probably died on February 8th 1819. He was buried on February 16th. Unfortunately, the original tombstone was lost in the bombings of 1941 and was replaced by a tablet above the burial site adjacent to the chained library at Chelsea Old Church.
Many examples of his original work can be found at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew; South Kensington Museum; The British Museum; The Victoria and Albert Museum; The Linnean Society, London; The Walter Rothschild Zoological Museum, Tring as well as private collections worldwide. Regrettably, only one original work is known to exist in Wales, Edwards’s birthplace – an unsigned and atypical watercolour called ‘Seabird’ housed at the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth.
Edwards’s obituary refers to him as “an accurate and able botanical and animal draughtsman…..surpassed by few…who has perhaps designed a greater number of objects than has fallen to the lot of any one artist of his day”. As such, he was able to bring botany to the masses in a way seldom achieved before or since. For this, botanists, gardeners and plant lovers everywhere, owe him a debt of gratitude.
Readers who would like more information are referred to the most complete and detailed account of Edwards’s life to date, namely:
Kevin L. Davies (2001). The Life and Work of Sydenham Edwards FLS, Welshman, Botanical and Animal Draughtsman, 1768 – 1819. Minerva, The Journal of Swansea History IX, 30-58.