Presenting... William Burchell (1781-1863)

March 2013 commemorates the 150th anniversary of the death of explorer and naturalist William John Burchell. He left a treasure trove of natural history specimens, many of which are now in the Museum.

This painting by William Burchell depicts his collecting wagon. Burchell noted that the sketching took him 4 days and the painting 27, in total 120 hours. He says he started on 12 February 1820 drawing the tortoise, elephant tooth and hippopotamus tusk, and two days later drew the press screws, memorandum book, flute and shell.The painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy later that year.

Painting of Burchell's Wagon

Painting of Burchell's Wagon

Burchell's tortoise

Burchell's tortoise

William Burchell learnt about plants in his familyís London nursery business, and by working at Kew Gardens. Seeking new opportunities, he travelled to the Atlantic island of St Helena in 1805, becoming a school master and the islandís botanist.

Five years later, he set off for Cape Town, to embark on a series of explorations through Cape Province to the desolate Karoo plains. He travelled 4,500 miles, drawing accurate maps and collecting as many different plants, animals, rocks and minerals as he could. In total, he described and collected over 63,000 specimens, most of which he gave to the British Museum.

Burchell's elephant tooth

Burchell's elephant tooth

Some of the specimens to be seen in Burchellís painting are in the Museumís collections. They include a tortoise which he collected on 10 October 1814; the tusk of a hippopotamus, and the molar tooth of an elephant. The picture also shows some of the butterflies and moths in Burchellís collection.

Burchell's insects

Burchell's insects

Although the University of Oxford awarded him an honorary degree in 1834, his work was not widely recognised. Disillusioned and unhappy, he committed suicide in 1863.

Two years later, his sister donated his remaining plants to Kew Gardens, and all his other specimens to this Museum. They include many Ďtype specimensí of species that were new to science.

Other features from our Presenting... series
Schoolboy's fossil discovery
Fulgurites
Museum memories
A space traveller's birthday
Alfred Russel Wallace
William Smith
The science of disguise
Our new Collections Manager - Hilary Ketchum
The Breath of Life

Visiting Us

What's on Exhibits & features Virtual tour Museum shop Presenting series Visiting as a family Light Touch exhibition EXPLORE Museums App
Visiting us: home
Contact us Accessibility Copyright Site map

University of Oxford homepage