Period of stay:
Interest in natural history:
Painting Hong Kong’s Plants
John Eyre was a Lieutenant Colonel in the British Army stationed in Hong Kong and was later promoted as the General. During his time in Hong Kong, he frequented the trails of Hong Kong Island, collecting seeds and making sketches of flowers on his journeys. His watercolour paintings came with memos that marked the time and location of bloom.
Two amateur botanists were often mentioned in these memos. The first was Captain Champion who, sent to station in Hong Kong the same year as Eyre, often teamed up with Eyre to search for plants. The other was British civil servant Henry Hance. Hance, who arrived in Hong Kong earlier than Eyre, lived on and off in Hong Kong for 20 years and was a leading figure in the taxonomy of Chinese plants. While Eyre had been stationed in the West Indies and had a profound understanding of subtropical plants, he still relied on Hance to identify the large variety of species in Hong Kong. When new discoveries were made, Hance would name the species.
In 1850, botanist Berthold Seemann arrived in Hong Kong on the HMS Herald. As Hance had contracted malaria, he asked Eyre to be Seemann’s guide. Seemann wrote: “There are present in Hong-Kong two gentlemen, Dr. H. F. Hance and Lieut-Colonel Eyre, who take great interest in botany......Lieut-Colonel Eyre makes almost daily excursions. He possesses, besides a considerable herbarium, a beautiful set of coloured drawings of Hong-Kong plants, chiefly executed by himself. Many of the figures represent species new to science.”
In the following year, Hance entrusted his Hong Kong specimens to Seemann who later brought them to Royal Botanic Gardens (Kew). Hance’s abundant collection, together with nearly 600 plant specimens that Champion brought to England, served as the foundation for Flora Hongkongensis – the first published monograph on Hong Kong plants.Upon Eyre’s return to Britain, he wrote to William Hooker, the then director of Kew, mentioning that Champion was preparing a book on the flora of Hong Kong (presumably Flora Hongkongensis). Eyre asked to bring his own paintings and plant seeds to add to the collection. However, due to the deterioration of his health, he was unfortunately never able to make the trip. It was not until 1904 that his collection of nearly 200 paintings were sold to Kew.While Eyre may not have been an expert in botany, in an era where the Westerners perceived Hong Kong as a "barren rock," his vivid illustrations were indispensable visual records of Hong Kong's wilderness in the 19th century.
Replica of Eyre's watercolour paintings and notes
© The Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
New species discovered by Eyre were mostly named after him by Hance.
(The Latin names in bracket written by Eyre)
Clematis meyeniana (Clematis eyrea)
While Hong Kong did not have a public botanical garden during Eyre’s era, there were three notable private gardens. Eyre included flowers from these gardens in his paintings, and his memos also show that he was friends with the managers of these gardens.
Japanese Camellia (No. 21) was from East Point, and the Passion Flower (No.186) came from Green Bank. The Scarlet Renanthera (No. 35) was mentioned in Eyre’s memo as a flower he saw at Spring Garden, but “not in bloom” in the valley east of the Albany Barracks (now Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens). Today, the Scarlet Renanthera is no longer seen in the wild of Hong Kong. Eyre’s record is a testament that the species once bloomed in the city’s wilderness.
Chinese Pholidota (No. 75) was mentioned as a species collected with Champion on Mount Gough. In his memo on Champion's Rhododendron (No. 44), in 1854, Eyre added, “My poor friend Champion, the companion of most of my botanising rambles, was killed at Inkerman.”