Clarence Bicknell sketches in Ceylon in 1908

We were pleased to get an email today from Anura Saparamadu in Sri Lanka. “My name is Anura Saparamadu and I am an art historian and writer from Sri Lanka. I published a book on Vintage Posters of Ceylon a few years ago which has now become one of the most sought after reference books on vintage posters.  My latest book is on foreign artists who visited Ceylon/Sri Lanka from 1600-2000. The 2-volume book features the works of more than 400 artists and their biographies. My research indicates that Clarence Bicknell visited Ceylon in the 1870s. I am most interested in knowing whether you have any paintings from his visit to Ceylon and if I could include him in the book. Since the book will feature hundreds of artists who are sadly forgotten by today’s collectors in Sri Lanka and elsewhere, it would be a good opportunity to highlight his wonderful talent. Naturally I would be most happy to credit the Museum for the images.”

I spent a happy hour with the collection of Clarence Bicknell sketchbooks which we have here at home and found Clarence’s sketchbook from that visit. Eureka! I was able to reply as follows…

Susie my wife and I are very attached to Sri Lanka since or holiday there in January 2019. We took the opportunity to accept an invitation from the staff of the Peradeniya Gardens to present a paper there, show the film of Clarence Bicknell, and look round the gardens. It was a memorable occasion. Here is how I related it on our website and in social media…

”    Monday 14th January 2019… Dr Shelomi A. Krishnarajah, (Director General, Sri Lanka Department of National Botanic Gardens) and senior colleagues welcomed Marcus and Susie Bicknell at the National Herbarium today. 20 executives and scientists of the Peradeniya Gardens watched the film “The Marvels of Clarence Bicknell “ and heard a talk on Clarence Bicknell’s botany and art. The discussion then covered his visit here in January 1908, the publication of historic botanical watercolours, the international networks of herbarium exchanges and the worldwide reputation of the Peradeniya Gardens (whose 200th anniversary will be celebrated in 2022) then and now.     
    The Bicknell family presented to the Peradeniya Gardens copies of the new biography of Clarence Bicknell “Marvels” and of his illustrated “Casa Fontanalba Visitors’ Book”. Dr Krishnarajah presented the Bicknells with copies of their new collection of botanical illustrations by three generations of the De Alwis Seneviratne family. 

Photo left to right: Mr. M. M. D. J. Senaratna (Deputy Director (Floriculture Research);
Dr. Subhani Ranasingh (Deputy Director, National Herbarium);
Ms. Chandrika Jayaweera (Director Development, Department of National Botanic Gardens);
Susie Bicknell (researcher at the Clarence Bicknell Association);
Dr Shelomi A. Krishnarajah, (Director General, Sri Lanka Department of National Botanic Gardens);
Dr Achala Attanayake (Deputy Director Royal Botanic Gardens Sri Lanka and Curator of the Peradeniya Gardens);
Marcus Bicknell (Chairman of the Clarence Bicknell Association and Clarence’s great grand nephew). 

    Note: The British botanist Clarence Bicknell visited the Royal Botanic Garden at Peradeniya in 1908 at the invitation of J.C. Willis the Director. This visit, and Bicknell’s voyage round Sri Lanka, features in MARVELS, the new biography of Clarence Bicknell by Valerie Lester. The excerpt from the book is at

and in pdf at

The photo of the gardens (“laid out to please european tourists”) was taken in Clarence’s time, but I am not certain it was taken by Clarence.

I have looked through the catalogue of our collection of Clarence’s paintings and sketches and am pleased to say I have found the small  (15×10 cms) sketch book he used during his visit to Sri Lanka. There are about 30 rough sketches of flora he took an interest in, not of great quality; he is sketching them to record them for later study, as he often did. The sketches of people and places are quite interesting. I have sent a dozen photos in high resolution to you using WeTransfer; you should have a separate email with a link. Note that some of the sketches are dated Jan 1907 but this is an error by Clarence each time; he was there in Jan 1908. We hereby authorise you to use these images in your work and publications, with pleasure.

It is disappointing that the sketches, below, are so rough. His talent is much better shown in his watercolours so I take the liberty of attaching a rhododendron from his Casa Fontanalba Visitors’ Book which show the flower and his colour work so well. If you would like to reproduce this I can send you a high res version.