NEWS - The Bristol Botanists, a study by Graham Avery

Written by Marcus Bicknell on .

casa fontanalba visitors book frontispieceGraham Avery’s study, published today on, of the Bristol Botanists and their relationship with Clarence Bicknell is one of the most interesting discoveries to come out of the two books which list people who went to the Casa Fontanalba, discussed below.

The background is worth relating here. The names of Clarence’s visitors in the "Casa Fontanalba Visitors' Book" were first transcribed into MS Excel by Marcus Bicknell in 2011 and made available on the internet. I did not know who most of the people were but felt that we would be able to find out about them from other researchers if we made the names available. Indeed, a few months later on the 18th of March 2012, I was pleased to receive an email from Graham Avery which included the following...

“The reason why I am writing to you is that the other day I found on the internet your transcription of the Casa Fontanalba visitors’ book, where on 19 July 1910 the name of Reginald Farrer appears together with that of Clarence Elliott. Your transcription adds notes on Elliott and Farrer and their roles in alpine gardening and plant hunting, but I wonder if you are aware that Farrer later mentioned this encounter with Bicknell in two of his publications?

“In ‘Among The Hills’ (1911) Farrer described his visit to Val Casterino in 1910, and in ‘The English Rock Garden’ (1919) he referred to Clarence Bicknell as ‘a famous English botanist’, recommending readers to visit the house where he ‘spends long summers in the course of which he asks nothing better than to show the treasures of the hills to such fellow-collectors as desire to see them’.

“I have been interested in Reginald Farrer for some time, particularly his books on his botanical excursions in the Maritime Alps (‘Among The Hills: A Book of Joy in High Places’) and the Dolomites (‘The Dolomites: King Laurin’s Garden‘).

“If it is of interest to you, I could submit a short piece for publication in ‘On Beacon Hill’ about Bicknell and Farrer, quoting more fully the passages from the books mentioned above, together with a few comments on the two men and their encounter in 1910.

So began a relationship which has proved most fruitful to me and to Graham, the most important of which is the research Graham has provided on Bicknell’s botany and his network of collectors, shown in the 20 papers he has written for us and which are published on our web site For example, Graham discovered that Bicknell sent 1,157 pressed flowers and 680 letters to Emile Burnat, botanist of Geneva; Graham’s original research and the paper he published with us is an example of the depth and significance of his recent findings about Bicknell.

I was encouraged by this input from Graham and from others who knew about one or more person who signed the Visitors’ Book. So I proceeded to transcribe in 2013 those listed and illustrated in a second album, Clarence’s “Book of Guests in Esperanto” and two books published by Clarence “Flowering Plants and Ferns of the Riviera” and “A Guide to the Prehistoric Rock Engravings in the Italian Maritime Alps”. These lists are all available on the same Excel spreadsheet.

pimpinella bicknelliiGraham was intrigued by some further names written up by Clarence in the “Book of Guests in Esperanto”, and the placename “Bristol” alongside some of them. A link? Graham wrote to the appropriate organisations in Bristol and was pleased to get strong research support from Clive Lovatt, Archivist of the Bristol Naturalists’ Society, and Hannah Lowery, Archivist of Special Collections at the Arts and Social Sciences Library of the University of Bristol the Bristol Natural History Society. It turns out that the three Bristol men in Bicknell’s book were members of the Bristol Naturalists’ Society; it is possible that they had contacted Bicknell in 1903 before their trip to Majorca in search of the Pimpinella variety (image, right) which Bicknell had identified there and which was subsequently name Pimpinella bicknelli. They visited Bicknell in the Casa Fontanalba in 1907 and 1911.

Graham’s paper on the three Bristol Botanists and their exchanges was completed in July 2017 and is published on I am delighted that Graham’s research into Clarence’s personal albums has revealed this interesting information about the Bristol Botanists and in all his other contributions is of importance to our knowledge of Bicknell and his work.  It is also gratifying that Graham chooses to make his research available to academic communities and to those interested in Clarence. As Graham himself concludes...
“Bicknell was a remarkable figure: having passed the first half of his life in one country (England), he spent the second half in another (Italy) and corresponded with scientists in others (France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland). He was not only a botanist but an archaeologist, artist, man of letters, Esperantist, pastor and philanthropist. Like him, the botanists from Bristol were distinguished in fields other than botany. The interwoven contacts between these men illustrate the extent and diversity of cultural and scientific exchange in Europe in the years before the Great War.”