Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Yew-men beings and the dragon-rat

I've mirrored this topic from Beachcombing's Bizarre History Blog to increase the chance that someone in the know might see it.

Dr B recently wrote about a historical puzzle - see Dragon Rats in Oxford - concerning an anecdote about Jacob Bobart the Younger (botany professor of Oxford, d. 1719), which first appears as a footnote in James Granger & Horace Walpole's A biographical history of England, from Egbert to the Great revolution: A supplement,:

Mr. Jacob Bobart, botany professor of Oxford, did about forty years ago (in 1704) find a dead rat in the Physic Garden, which he made to resemble the common picture of dragons by altering its head and tail, and thrusting in taper sharp sticks, which distended the skin on each side till it mimicked wings. He let it dry as hard as possible. The learned immediately pronounced it a dragon, and one of them sent an accurate description of it to Dr. Magliabecchi, librarian to the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Several fine copies of verses were wrote upon so rare a subject; but at last Mr. Bobart owned the cheat. However, it was looked upon as a masterpiece of art, and as such deposited in the museum or anatomy school at Oxford.
- A biographical history of England, from Egbert to the Great revolution: A supplement ..., 1774, page 404

The anecdote trundled on, unaltered and mostly unanalysed, right through the 19th century and into the 20th century, despite complete lack of corroboration.

Dr B has been looking to see if these "verses" still exist, and one lead was an enquiry by an HT Bobart (presumably a descendant) to the Victorian equivalent of the Internet, Notes and Queries (see page 428, N&Q, April 30, 1853) and Willis's Current Notes (see June 1852). In a connected thread in the same enquiry, Mr Bobart referred to a couple of obscure-sounding poems: Poem upon Mr. Jacob Bobards Yew-man of the Guards to the Physic Garden, to the tune of the ‘Counter-Scuffle’. Oxon. 1662 and A Ballad on the Gyants in the Physic Garden in Oxon, who have been breeding Feet as long as Garagantua was Teeth. I managed to find the second, in Hyder Edward Rollins’s 1927 Pack of Autolycus (pages 108-), but the poems, curious though they are, refer not to the dragon-rat but to "Gog and Magog", a pair of topiary giants that guarded the entrance to the garden. He had quite a detailed reply, though not on the point of the dragon, from an Edward F Rimbault (see N&Q, June 11th, 1853).

So - does anyone have any leads on Bobart's exercise in rat-dragon taxidermy, and on the "fine copies of verses" written about it? If you do, leave a comment to Dr B via Dragon Rats in Oxford.

Addendum: A little further Googling finds that HT Bobart was indeed a descendant of the Oxford Bobart: Henry Tilleman Bobart, author of the 1884 A Biographical Sketch of Jacob Bobart, of Oxford, together with an account of his two sons, Jacob and Tilleman. The book isn't online, but there's a section  on the Bobarts in An account of the Morisonian herbarium in the possession of the University of Oxford, together with biographical and critical sketches of Morison and the two Bobarts and their works and the early history of the Physic garden, 1619-1720 (1914) (Internet Archive cu31924001707821). It's a glimpse into a world of intense botanical geekiness, eccentricity and academic politics, revealing that JB the Younger probably wasn't actually a professor. It also mentions the yew-giants:

After ye walls & gates of this famous garden were built, old Jacob Bobert, father to this present Jacob, may be said to be ye man yt first gave life & beauty to this famous place, who by his care & industry replenished the walls with all manner of good fruits our clime would ripen, & bedeck the earth with great variety of trees plants & exotick flowers, dayly augmented by the Botanists who bring them hither from ye remote Quarters of ye world ;
that in the north wall which admits entrance from the City being fairest built ; by this old Jacob some years past set two yew trees which being formed by his skill are now grown up to be gigantic bulky fellows, one holding a Bill, th'other a Club on his shoulder.

These specimens of topiary work afforded a fertile theme to the wits of the time. Edmund Gayton wrote two ballads about them, Upon Mr. Jacob Bobart's Yew-men of the Guard to the Physick Garden, to the tune of the Counter Scuffle (Oxon. 1662), and A Ballad on the Gyants in the Physick Garden in Oxford, who have been breeding feet as long as Gargantua has Teeth (Oxon. 1662). Another poem, entitled Upon the most Hopefull & ever-flourishing Sprouts of Valour, the indefatigable Centrys of the Physick- Garden (Oxon. 1664), Wood attributes to John Drope, a Fellow of Magdalen College.
- ibid. page xix

The 1912 Oxford Gardens (Internet Archive oxfordgardensbas00guntrich) has the full text of the third poem (page 189), with a sketch of the two topiary sentries.

- Ray

No comments:

Post a Comment