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Hill was an eccentric and versatile character, a protégé of the founder of Kew Gardens, Lord Bute. In his early life, he was an apprentice to an apothecary, and then set up his own apothecary shop in London, where he studied botany in his spare time. He was a prolific illustrator, classifier and engraver of plants, and compiled the first book on British flora to be based on the Linnaean nomenclature. He was also a satirical writer and society gossip columnist, which often involved him in bitter quarrels, but it is for his enduring work on botany that he will be remembered - it won him the Order of Vasa from the king of Sweden, and from then on he called himself "Sir" John Hill.