Aiton, William Townsend
- D. J. Mabberley
Aiton, William Townsend (1766–1849), horticulturist, was born at 199 Kew Road, Kew, Surrey, on 2 February 1766, the elder son of the horticulturist William Aiton (1731–1793) and his wife, Elizabeth (c.1740–1826), whose maiden name was possibly Townsend. He was educated privately in Chiswick and at Bower House school in Camberwell. Through the influence of Sir Joseph Banks he was apprenticed at the age of sixteen to his father; he also undertook private commissions as a landscape gardener. On the death of his father he succeeded the latter in the royal gardens at Kew, and on the resignation of John Haverfield the younger in 1795 those at Richmond. In 1804 Aiton took control of the gardens of Kensington and St James's palaces in succession to William Forsyth, and by 1827 he was styled—at his own suggestion—director-general of his majesty's gardens. He was held in high esteem by George III and the royal family, and conducted a confidential correspondence with the duke of Kent until the time of his death. John Nash consulted him over the planting scheme for St James's Palace and the Brighton Pavilion. He landscaped 40 acres at Buckingham Palace, uniting two small ponds into a grand lake, and supervised many extensive and important alterations at Windsor.
Aiton succeeded in getting his brother John appointed to the charge of the Hampton Court Gardens over the gardener to the duke of Clarence, but the result was the reduction of his own authority, on the duke's accession as William IV, to the charge of the Kew and Buckingham Palace gardens. Although he supervised the construction of a £6000 greenhouse at Kew in 1839, his management of Kew was severely criticized in John Lindley's report on the royal gardens: his reign was seen as one of procrastination, characterized by his failure to deal with correspondence and his lack of any clear policy. The gardens were transferred to the state and in June 1840 W. J. Hooker was appointed director, although only in November did Aiton agree to relinquish control. He surrendered his post on 25 March 1841, but retained the management of the pleasure grounds at Kew until 1845. He received a generous pension of £1000 per annum (Hooker's salary, by comparison, was £300, with a £200 housing allowance).
Between 1796 and 1802 Aiton published an edition of Franz Bauer's Delineations of Exotick Plants and in 1810–13 a second edition of 1250 copies of his father's Hortus Kewensis, in five volumes. The scientific content in the Hortus Kewensis is attributable to Sir Joseph Banks's librarians, Jonas Dryander and Robert Brown, who contributed much original work to the last two volumes. Aiton checked the dates of introduction of plants, of which over 11,000 are listed, and he also supervised production of an Epitome, in one volume, published in 1814. His papers and the draft of a second edition of the Epitome were burnt by his brother John, although part of the manuscript of the Hortus Kewensis, in the hand of Aiton's amanuensis, Richard Cunningham, survives at Kew, while Brown's drafts are at the Natural History Museum. Aiton's herbarium relating to the work, with Robert Teesdale's herbarium, which he had bought in 1805, were auctioned at his death. His library, with that of John, was auctioned in 1851: Kew was forbidden to bid.
Aiton was elected a fellow of the Linnean Society in 1797 and was one of the founders and an active fellow of the Horticultural Society. To its Transactions he contributed a paper on the cultivation of the cucumber, for which he was awarded a silver medal in 1817. He died at 199 Kew Road, unmarried, on 9 October 1849, and was buried at St Anne's, Kew Green, where there is a plaque. His heir was his illegitimate son, William Atwell Smith (b. 1808).
Aiton, an able landscape gardener, was too inflexible to appreciate the changing role of botanic gardens, a role which Hooker understood and which was, paradoxically, promoted by Banks, Aiton's patron. His legacy is therefore largely in the royal gardens other than Kew and in the names of a number of garden plants commemorating him, one not yet relegated to synonymy being Robert Brown's name Serruria aitonii (Proteaceae).
- R. Desmond, Kew: the history of the Royal Botanic Gardens (1995)
- D. J. Mabberley, Jupiter botanicus: Robert Brown of the British Museum (1985)
- H. R. Fletcher, The story of the Royal Horticultural Society, 1804–1968 (1969)
- J. Britten, ‘The history of Aiton's Hortus Kewensis’, Journal of Botany, British and Foreign, 50 (1912), 3rd suppl., 1–16
- RBG Kew, notebook
- BL, letters to Sir Joseph Banks, Add. MSS 33980–33982
- NHM, corresp.
- L. Poyot, lithograph, 1829, RBG Kew
- portrait, Royal Horticultural Society, London; repro. in Fletcher, The story of the Royal Horticultural Society
Wealth at Death
£7000: TNA: PRO, PROB 11/2102