Mary BartlettMary Bartlett came to Dartington in 1963 as a horticultural student. After her training she became responsible for the glasshouses, nursery and walled garden.

She is the author of several books, including the monograph Gentians, and Inky Rags, a review of which can be found on the Dartington website. She is now the tutor for bookbinding in the Crafted @ Dartington department. More blogs from Mary

I felt rather pleased last month when the Dartington staff asked if they could use my Unicorn Island book as the back story for a children’s treasure hunt trail to inaugurate the new play area at the Hall.

My interest in unicorns is no secret in this part of the world.

It’s quite an obsession – I can’t deny it. Unicorn Island, which I wrote in 1995 and which the poet Adrian Mitchell and I adapted for the stage, encapsulates most of the symptoms. Everything about the unicorn and its value to the world as a metaphor for its suffering creatures is in that book, and in the pictures Richard Merrills painted for me.

'Composte' unicorn painting by Richard Merrills, as seen in Unicorn Island. Click to enlarge
‘Composite’ unicorn painting by Richard Merrills, as seen in Unicorn Island. Click to enlarge


Unicorns are misunderstood, and the downside for admirers like me who strain their sinews trying to hold people to the science of the unicorn myth is that we are often misunderstood too.

A Modern Alphabet for Unicorns, 2001, illustrated over a two year period by Norman Young, documented the unicorn’s observations on our human journey. The collaboration with Gillian Hoyte Byrom who made the first unicorn for me in 1995, had the sense to record the ideas.

A Modern Alphabet for Unicorns: An interview with Mary Bartlett. (c) Gillian Hoyte Byrom

Science and myth may strike you as odd words to couple together, but there are glaring examples of what I mean when the two split apart. Even in historic houses where the unicorn has a spiritual home the souvenir trade will very likely depict the creature as a horse with a horn and use imagery with no connection to country of origin. Buy the t-shirt or the cute cuddly toy and you will take home a travesty of a thousand years of history.

Does it matter? The better story is that throughout the medieval period and before it, as people moved back and forth between Europe and the Holy land, inflicting numberless atrocities on the way, they would have encountered herds of Dorcas Gazelle, even in the desert, and would have seen those spiralised gazelle horns shimmering.

Just as today we see the images of cultural destruction, the wholesale slaughter of these beautiful animals in Libya is incomprehensible.

In other words, whatever the unicorn is or isn’t, it is a bovid or conceivably a cervid – certainly not a horned horse. One taxonomical reading sheds light on history, the other doesn’t. (My hunch is that the confusion arose when the fashion for the body armour extended to attaching a metal point to the metal chamfrom that protected a horse’s head.)

For a brilliant introduction to Bovids of the World consult Jose R. Castello’s Princeton Field Guide.

That’s where the science joins the myth. Taxonomy is human-made key to evolution. It organises our understanding of the natural world.

So, as Dartington adopted Unicorn Island-and all those misunderstandings –  it was rewarding to find myself mentioned in The Oldie – in a gardening piece by the RHS medallist David Wheeler. He quotes from my 40-year-old monograph on Gentians, which by now, taxonomically speaking, is sadly out of date, partly because science moves on, partly because plant breeders can’t be stopped and hybrids proliferate. They are a driven species. Clivia ‘Mary Bartlett’ now resides with the RHS at Rosemoor. My friend John Morris dedicated years raising them from South African seed.

Clivia ‘Mary Bartlett’
Clivia ‘Mary Bartlett’. (c) John Morris


One of the wonderful rewards of my work on gentians was a lasting friendship with the Reverend Norman Crutwell, who dedicated as much of his life as his Christian mission allowed to botanising in Papua New Guinea, from where he wrote to me about the species he discovered and described.

Another lasting pleasure has been the quest for authentic taxonomy. James Pringle of Hamilton Botanic Gardens, Ontario, guided my work on gentians and he still helps me today. Now it’s email; in those days it was all letter post, and I still have the archive of our handwritten correspondence, looking more antique by the year.

Postage stamps! –they’re another of my taxonomical enthusiasms. My set of Papua stamps that show Norman’s painting of some of the plants he collected including Rhododendron crutwelli, couldn’t be closer to my heart.

Mary's Papua stamps
Mary’s Papua stamps


I used Gentiana crutwelli in one of the wood engravings for one of my limited edition books. A more recent book, Travels with Percival, includes an American species, admittedly a little further north than it would normally occur.

Travels with Percival, illustration
Travels with Percival, illustration. (c) Mary Bartlett


What are the connections? The film, The Embrace of the Serpent can offer a clue. It follows the quest for a particular plant from the Amazon. As I watched the black and white images I thought of Norman and his gentleness and considered the environmental impact done by non-indigenous cultures across the globe.

Unicorn Island attempted to convey the wider environmental threat by mapping species depletion to the unicorn’s body.

For my attempt to capture a few connections between Dartington, the white hart and the unicorn of the love chase, we compiled The Unicorn in the Garden.

The unicorn is an illuminating presence in the forest of history.

Horse it isn’t.




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