Our Curator of Artefacts Glenn Benson examines one of the great botanist's medals, and finds that all that glitters is not gold
Published on 23rd May 2022
"It has a touch of Shakespeare about it..."
In Shakespeare's great play ‘The Merchant of Venice’, the Prince of Morocco must choose one of three caskets: if he chooses correctly, then he may marry the “fair Portia”. One casket is made of lead, one of silver and the other of gold. The prince chooses the one made of gold, hoping to find "an angel in a golden bed”; instead the casket contains a skull. He reads a note within the casket that contains the famous phrase, “All that glitters is not gold…”: an aphorism that not everything that looks precious and true, turns out to be so.
For many years, some of the many medals awarded to the great botanist and explorer Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817-1911), and bequeathed to the Society in 1922, were held in an “iron chest” in the Society’s strong room. The chest, which requires three separate keys to open, was purchased in 1827 from Messrs Larkins & Eadis for £8 18s 6d and was originally used to hold important documents relating to the Society.
Later, some of Hooker's more ostensibly "valuable" medals were put in the chest, along with those awarded to Sir James Edward Smith (founder of the Society), among other precious items. It became a tradition that at the Anniversary Meeting, held in May, the President and select Officers of the Society would inspect the contents of the chest.
"All that glitters is not gold..."
Among these treasured, protected, medals was one known as ‘The Prince of Mantua’ medal.
This gilded bronze—not gold—medal was created sometime around 1879 by Charles Ottley Groom-Napier, Duke of Mantua and Montferrat, Prince of Mantua, Montferrat and Ferrara, Nevers, Rethel and Alencion, etc., to support his assumed lineage, and harking back to the medals created in Renaissance Italy by the nobility of Mantua and other city states.
Charles Ottley Groom was born in May 1839, on the island of Tobago, eight and half months after the premature death of his father Charles Edward Groom, a sugar plantation owner or manager. He would later (around 1865) add Napier (his mother’s maiden name) to his name, becoming Charles Ottley Groom-Napier. Moving to England, he and his mother Ann (1815–1895) lived in Sussex, and in 1865 he is recorded as living in the port of Bristol.
From the late 1860s Charles Ottley began to assume a series of ever grander titles, some of which are listed above. A 200 plus page document was produced setting out the pedigree of himself and his mother, who assumed (or was given by her son) the title of Duchess of Mantua and Montferrat. A copy is in the British Library, and an online version is available from the National Library of Scotland. On 24 March 1879, Napier held banquet for 7,000 guests in a specially-constructed pavilion at Greenwich, the walls of which were hung with 700 illuminated leaves of vellum illustrating his (purported) pedigree. Only vegetarian food was served, along with a drink of his devising that he called “curry champagne” made from a mixture of curry powder and ginger beer. Napier was too ill to attend the festivities.
The story of his life is covered by others, including Brian William Fox FLS (1929-1999) in The Linnean (no.9 (2): 26-28), and many other sources cast doubt on the man, his works and abilities.
Charles Ottley Groom-Napier (or just Napier, for ease!) is not here to defend himself, but it is worth remembering that he was a prominent collector and acquired huge numbers of mineral, plant, and fossil specimens from around the world, including the personal collection of fossils from James Tennant (1808-1881), mineralogist to Queen Victoria. He was elected a Fellow of the Geological Society on the 24th May 1865, although he resigned in 1878, possibly over the publication of his “Burlington House” magazine (the cover of which implied it had been produced under the auspices of the Geological Society, which it had not). In 1878 he sold over 600 miscellaneous prints to the British Museum, and these can be viewed through their online collection. One of Napier’s many publications The Food, Use, and Beauty of British Birds (1865) is available in the Linnean Society's Library.
By the time of his death in 1894, Napier had adopted yet another name, Charles Bourbon d’Este Paleologus Gonzaga. Most of his collection was sold, some going to the Natural History Museum in London. His mineral collection was purchased by mineralogist Friedrich Krantz (1856-1926), taken to Bonn, and dispersed. Tennant’s fossils were sold to the Western Australian Museum in Perth. A large part of his herbarium is currently preserved in the Bolton Museum, Greater Manchester, England.
The Prince of Mantua medal in the Linnean Society’s collection was made by Baddeley Brothers of London sometime after 1879, and probably around 1881. The reverse of the medal (pictured) lists the claimed past recipients, including Columbus, Newton, Da Vinci and Shakespeare. The obverse features a profile portrait of an as-yet unidentified man.
“And the award goes to…”
More than twenty of the medals were issued. They were posted to the recipients, who were instructed, via an accompanying letter, to acknowledge receipt upon delivery and write back to Napier with a photograph of themselves with the medal. Napier collated and recorded the replies, and claimed that all the recipients had replied as instructed by 1883.
Hooker received his medal for “geographical botany”; his reply to the “Prince” was sent from the Royal Botanical Gardens Kew, where he was Director, on the 4th October 1882. Hooker was said to have accepted the medal with “guarded courtesy”. Mention of it is noticeably absent from the extensive list of medals, honours and awards received by Hooker between 1839 and 1908 (and listed in Appendix C of the ‘Life and Letters of Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker', volume II).
Medals were also sent to the biologist Sir Richard Owen (1808-1892), now held in the Natural History Museum, London, and to the polymath John Ruskin (1818-1900), author of ‘The Stones of Venice’ (1851-1853), which is in the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London. Ruskin replied enthusiastically to Napier from his home in Herne Hill London on 2nd April 1882, but did not include a photograph. The English politician, William Gladstone (1809-1898) is one of several recipients said to have flatly refused to accept the medal sent to him. A white metal version of the medal is in the collection of the British Museum, London.
“A less princely choice...”
Soon after I became the Honoray Curator of Artefacts for the Linnean Society, I inspected the medals housed in the iron chest. They shared their secure home with several documents and other items. I decided to move the medals to inert plastic boxes in a separate storage cupboard, to reduce the risk of them being damaged by acids, and other chemicals, released by the organic materials with which they were stored in the chest. In doing so I broke the tradition of visiting the medals in their iron casket in their bunker at the Anniversary Meeting. For me, however, the choice between a iron casket, and a modern inert plastic one, was easy, and unlike the Prince of Morocco, I did find gold (mostly).
Glenn Benson, Honorary Curator of Artefacts
Davenport-Hines, R. Groom. "Charles Ottley (1839–1894), impostor". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Retrieved: 18 May 2022, from https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-54058
Huxley, Leonard, ed. Life and Letters of Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, Volume II. London: John Murray, 1918.
A full list of "Prince of Mantua" medal recipients is available here.
The author would like to thank Caroline Lam, Archivist, Geological Society of London, and Alfie Jenkins, Membership Teams Administrator, Royal Statistical Society, for their assistance in the preparation of this article.
Image OP-H-2 © the Linnean Society of London. All other images taken by the author.