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François Le Vaillant: Accidental Botanist?

Ian Glenn, University of Cape Town

French ornithologist and travel writer François Le Vaillant was undoubtedly the most influential early traveler to South Africa. His travel writings were widely translated into most European languages and he helped shape many important literary and cultural genres. Reputedly the best taxidermist of his day, he also played an important role in changing museum exhibitions.

Le Vaillant's attitude towards botanists such as Anders Sparrman and Carl Peter Thunberg was disparaging in his earliest writings, but later on he confessed to wishing that he had been better educated in botany. Perhaps surprisingly, he owned a collection of important botanical drawings of South African flowers, a collection that the South African Parliament purchased, along with other paintings he had sold, in 1963.

This paper uses new biographical information about Le Vaillant, and the discovery of his map produced by Jean-Benjamin de La Borde for Louis XVI, to reassess his activity and role as a botanist and to examine the conditions of production of paintings of South African flora in the late eighteenth century. The map shows that Dutch floral painter Willem van Leen contributed to the six named plants on the map, while archival research shows that Le Vaillant was friendly with Gerard van Spaendonck, a leading botanical illustrator of his time, and with André Thouin, professor of horticulture at the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle in Paris.

The paper will try to re-establish the links between the illustrations of Robert Gordon, William Paterson, and Le Vaillant, and to argue that Le Vaillant and those that worked with him in France deserve more recognition as media innovators and as discoverers and portrayers of South African flora.


Ian Glenn is Professor of Media Studies at the University of Cape Town. He studied at the University of Natal before taking postgraduate degrees at the University of York (UK) and the University of Pennsylvania, where he completed a PhD in modern American and British literature. He joined the English Department at the University of Cape Town and helped create a new Centre for Film and Media Studies and was Director of the Centre from 2005–12.

His research into early South African literature led him into archival work on French ornithologist and explorer François Le Vaillant. He has co-authored two books on Le Vaillant and written numerous articles about him. Most recently, he curated “The King's Map,” an exhibition at the Iziko South African Museum in Cape Town that had as its center a map based on Le Vaillant's travels made for King Louis XVI. The map, produced in 1790, had never before been exhibited.

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