The Victorian era is considered the golden age of natural history collecting. The pursuit of fauna and flora from around the planet was driven both by a desire to learn about nature, as well as a quest to prove oneself against the wilderness.
Victorians collected almost everything to do with the natural world. However, women were excluded from collecting most things by the rules of Victorian society, usually relegated to collecting plants. Some of these women took full advantage of a science that was acceptable for them to study, becoming leading authorities in botany. One of these women was Mary Philadelphia Merrifield.
Born Mary P. Watkins in Brompton, London on 18 April 1804, to the barrister Sir Charles Watkins, she married trainee barrister John Merrifield in 1827. After qualifying as a barrister, he moved to Brighton with his family to practice law.
Mary started her career in the academic community by translating and publishing the works of the 15th century Italian painter Cennino Cennini. This work bought her to the attention of the Royal Commission on the Fine Arts, who employed her to research the history of painters materials and techniques. Assisted in her work by her sons Charles and Frederick, the research was published in book form in 1846 as the Art of Fresco Painting. It proved to be a very useful manual for artists and was reprinted as late as 1952.
She wrote several more books on art and fashion, and was awarded a civil pension of £100 in 1857 for services to art and literature. After receiving this pension however, her interests shifted to the field of natural history, and she soon published a book entitled A Sketch of the Natural History of Brighton. Being perfectly cited by the sea, she became an authority in the study of seaweed, and was considered one of the leading algologists in Britain. She wrote many papers for scientific journals including the Journal of the Linnaean Society and the Annals of Botany, and continued to publish articles in the journal Nature until her death.
During her last few years in Brighton, she helped to arrange the natural history galleries at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, all of which have now been relocated to the Booth Museum. She also learned Danish and Swedish so that she could keep up with botanical research from these countries, and she had a species of marine algae named after her.
Following her husband’s death in 1877, she moved into her daughter’s home in Cambridge, and died on 4 January 1889. Her collection went to the Natural History department of the British Museum (now the Natural History Museum), but some items she had previously given to other colleagues are now housed at the Booth Museum. These are mostly seaweeds but include some other specimens as well. Several of these items will go on display at Horsham Museum in early 2012, as part of the Victorian Collectors exhibition produced by the Booth Museum.
Lee Ismail, Curator of Natural Sciences