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Saturday, 14 May 2011


Apologies if you’ve come here in search of Jameson Moss the young actor and musician! What are the chances of you finding instead my cousin Hampden Gurney Jameson, the celebrated botanical artist who specialised in illustrations of British mosses?

Hampden Gurney Jameson (1852-1939) c1892

I wrote recently about my indigo-trading Jameson ancestors, of whom William Gurney Jameson was the last to deal in the exotic dyestuff. Hampden was William’s younger brother. Coming like so many of my ancestors from a proud philanthropic and nonconformist background he enrolled in around 1870 as a medical student at the University of London (the institution established in 1826 by nonconformists at a time when they were barred from other universities in England).

But perhaps in emulation of his mother’s cousin, his near namesake John Hampden Gurney who became a priest, Hampden Gurney Jameson dropped out of medical school and himself trained for holy orders at Oxford. After his ordination he served parishes in London, Lincoln and Eastbourne. But it was probably at Oxford that he fell in with a group of rarified botanists, the bryologists – students of mosses.

Capillary thread-moss (Bryum capillare) on a stone wall
photographed in Dumbartonshire by Lairich Rig

I imagine that bryologists are to botany what indigo merchants are to general trade – pretty specialised. But if you’ve stopped for even a moment on a country walk to look closely at a patch of moss on a tree or wall, you’ll know just how varied and beautiful these plants are – so much more than merely the wadding to line your summer hanging baskets with. Hampden was clearly swept along by his Oxford companions’ enthusiasms and began to study, write and draw.

He wasn’t the first or the last man of the cloth to make an important mark on the study of nature – think of Rev Gilbert White’s pioneering 1789 Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne. Hampden’s contributions included a Key to Genera and Species of British Mosses (1891) and his Illustrated Guide to British Mosses (1893).

Hugh Neville Dixon (1861-1944)

Hugh Neville Dixon’s Student’s Handbook of British Mosses first appeared in print in 1896, with 40 black and white plates of detailed illustrations by HGJ, many of them from Hampden’s own Guide. The third edition of Dixon’s book, in 1924, was reprinted twice, in 1954 and 1970 but has by now largely been displaced by E.V. Watson’s British Mosses and Liverworts (1955). However a facsimile edition of Dixon and Jameson’s long-running collaboration is now available once again, 115 years after it first appeared. Hampden’s drawings are kept in the archives of the Natural History Museum.

Dixon’s Student’s Handbook of British Mosses
with illustrations by Hampden Gurney Jameson

Much information for this article comes from Mark Lawley’s excellent online biographical sketch of Hampden.

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