Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait miniature of William Aiton (1731-93) 

Richard Collins (1755-1831)

Portrait miniature of William Aiton (1731-93), Richard Collins
Watercolour on ivory
18th Century
Oval, 2 ½ x 2 1/8 in (64 x 53 mm)
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William Aiton was one of the most important British horticulturalists of the 18th Century, and the first superintendent of Kew Gardens, London. The son of a farmer, Aiton trained in Scotland, but by 1754 had moved to London to work at the Physic Garden in Chelsea, as an assistant to Philip Miller. Five years later he began work at Kew, where he managed the small physic garden of Augusta, Dowager Princess of Wales for an annual salary of £120.

It was through his collaboration with the naturalist Joseph Banks (1743-1820) that Aiton’s legacy at Kew was built. Banks’ interests in the natural sciences, along with his strong friendship with King George III, saw the gardens at Kew expand rapidly and form the basis of what we know today as the Royal Botanic Gardens. In 1773 Aiton, along with Banks’ curator-librarians Daniel Solander and Jona Dryander, began compiling what would be his written legacy; Hortus Kewensis, a three-volume publication with engravings listing all plants known to be in cultivation in southern England. In it, Aiton was described as ‘Gardener to His Majesty’. Some 5600 species were recorded from specimens now in the Natural History Museum. In 1783 Aiton took over the running of the entire Kew estate, combining the running of the kitchen garden and the pleasure grounds.

This miniature, dated 1793, is by Richard Collins, who at the time was principal portrait painter in enamel to George III. Collins, who had entered the Royal Academy schools in 1776, had been a pupil of Jeremiah Meyer (1735-1789), his predecessor as royal enamellist. The likeness here is taken from a larger oil portrait of Aiton now in the collection of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, which shows him holding a specimen of ‘Aitonia capensis’, a type of South African shrub named after him. The Kew portrait has traditionally been attributed to Zoffany, an artist who maintained a strong relationship with a number of naturalists throughout his life. Zoffany lived near Kew, and evidently knew Aiton well; he was a pall-bearer at Aiton’s funeral in February 1793, along with Banks and Dryander. Both Aiton and Zoffany are buried at St Anne’s, Kew.

Another version of this miniature, also by Collins, is in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. However, in the most recent Fitzwilliam catalogue the artist has been misidentified as John Cox Dillman Engleheart (1783-1862), nephew of George, with the initials ‘RC’ suggested as an imitation of the work of Richard Cosway (1742-1821). The Fitzwilliam work was also painted in 1793, however the clothing is finished to a far lesser degree than seen in the present miniature.
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