A new portrait of William Curtis, the famous botanist has been discovered. The portrait is in a private collection, and rarely seen. He was Jane Austen’s Alton Apothecary who she consulted in the earlier stages of her illness.
Amongst a family of five generations of Apothecaries, all named William, this William Curtis (1746-1799) was born in Lenten Street, Alton, Hampshire.
William started out aged fourteen as the the apprentice of his grandfather, the local Apothecary in the area. The Crown Inn was next to his grandfather’s shop, and a stableman was a keen botanist who encouraged William to study plants for their medicinal properties.
In those days, people consulted an Apothecary as it was more affordable than a doctor. They were paid for the medication they sold, which was usually a combination of plants and herbs. They did have to study for 7 years, so it was seen as a dedicated profession. These days, it would be more like consulting a chemist.
William Curtis the Author
At the age of 20, William’s apprenticeship ended and he moved to London to work at an Apothecary on Gracechurch Street. A natural enthusiast and a quick learner, by the age of 25 he had written a number of books about nature, with a focus on butterflies and moths.
He published Flora Londinensisin six volumes (1777–1798), and was one of the founders of the Botanical Magazine, which still exists today. Prints from earlier copies of the magazine are frequently seen at Sotheby’s for auction. This may have been why Jane, as a fellow author was drawn to him.
In 1800, he was described as ‘a man of thirty, of medium height, rather broad, with dark brown hair, small side whiskers, greyish eyes, a good, firm chin and a kindly expression. Having been brought up in a Quaker family he dressed quietly and took life seriously.’
The Curtis family later thought that William could have inspired the character Mr Perry, the apothecary in Jane’s novel Emma, who was said to be ‘an intelligent, gentlemanlike man’.
Jane called him her ‘Alton Apothy’, and mentions William in two letters from 1817. To her brother Charles, she wrote on 6 April, “I was so ill on Friday but either her return or my having seen Mr Curtis or my disorders choosing to go away, have made me much better.“.
Sadly, this improvement did not last, and Jane wrote her last letter to her friend Anne Sharp on 22 May, “In spite of my hopes & promises when I wrote to you, I have since been very ill indeed… our Alton Apothy did not pretend to be able to cope with it.”
He advised her to consult a Mr Lyford, a more experienced doctor based in Winchester. Unfortunately, he was unable to help and Jane died on July 18, 1817 in her sister’s arms.
St Mary’s Church, Battersea
William died age 53, and is buried at St Mary’s Church in Battersea, London. This seems fitting, as he collected many samples for his work from the churchyard here.
His humble tombstone has since been lost, although you can see a window dedicated to his memory. His portrait is framed with flowers from his book, Flora Londinensis.
The Curtis Museum
You can find out more about William Curtis at the Curtis Museum in Alton.