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An exhibition of flower illustration in books since the Renaissance: Glasgow University Library 13 May - 26 August 1995

Exhibition curated by Peter Asplin, Department of Special Collections. Revised version for the web edited by Julie Gardham, January 1999. Some of the openings depicted here are not those exhibited in 1995, but are from the same works.

image displayed here shows Meconopsis Nipalensis by Walter Fitch from Curtis's Botanical Magazine (plate 5585)



Botanical illustration has featured in two earlier exhibitions at Glasgow University Library - ‘Great Flower Books’ (1977) and ‘Houses and Gardens’ (1978/79). The present exhibition has drawn to some extent on these but aims to display a more representative sample ranging from the illuminated manuscripts of the late middle ages through woodcut, engraving and lithograph until twentieth-century photographic techniques ousted such labour-intensive methods. The emphasis of the following notes is on the artists, where these are identified, but their work reflects two strands of European horticulture through five centuries - native European species increasingly augmented by importations from expanding colonial empires and newly explored territory, as indicated by specific names americanum, africanum and the like. 


Most of the volumes displayed have been selected from the personal collections of William Hunter (1718-1783) and George Arnott Walker-Arnott (1799-1868). However several are from strong holdings acquired by the Library to support the teaching of botany which has flourished in the University since 1704.



Breviarium Romanum
Ghent, 1494 MS Hunter 25 (S.2.15) Folio 196r: group of plants

Throughout the middle ages flowers had been depicted in manuscript decoration. However, until the late fifteenth century they were usually stylised. This group (fol. 109v) by the Master of the First Prayer Book of Maximilian displays a clear intention to represent living plants and includes Dianthus, Geranium, Iris, Rose, Sweet Pea and a double Daisy. It is one of eight border panels decorated by the same hand as the London Hastings Hours (British Library, MS Add. 54782).

Plato, Phaedrus and Phaedo, with Commentaries
Southern Netherlands, 1483 MS Hunter 206 (U.1.10) Folio 33r: Iris germanica

The flower by an unknown artist depicted in the initial P (fol. 33) in this manuscript is clearly recognisable as Iris germanica, grown in European gardens for centuries and portrayed three and a quarter centuries later by Sydenham Edwards for Curtis’s Botanical magazine. Elsewhere in the volume carnations and strawberries are reproduced with equal realism.

Pier Andrea Mattioli, Commentarii, in libri sex Pedacii Dioscoridis Anazarbei, De medica materia
Venice, 1554
Sp Coll f 313 (Walker-Arnott Collection) Page 332: Hyssopus

Pier Andrea Mattioli (1501-1577) was born in Siena and brought up in Venice. Like his father he practised as a physician, first in Italy but then successively to Archduke Ferdinand and Emperor Maximilian II in Prague. The artists he employed for the woodcuts in his Commentarii further developed a contemporary trend towards making full use of the area afforded by the block, with plants extending to its limits. Cross-hatching was used to display contours and varying thickness of line to indicate depth. Some coloured copies exist but these were published as black and white and then coloured by their owners. Mattioli died of the plague in Trent and the genus Matthiola was subsequently named after him. The Materia Medica of the Greek Dioscorides survives in a manuscript of A.D. ca 512 - Codex Vindobonensis Dioscorides - which happens also to be the earliest illustrated herbal.

Emanuel Sweerts, Florilegium amplissimum et selectissimum .... 2 vols in 1
Amsterdam, 1620
X.1.12 (Hunterian Collection)

The introduction of engraving as a technique for book illustration coincided with the proliferation of new plant arrivals in Europe from Turkey and the New World. A spate of ‘florilegia’ ensued, usually depicting the plants in an individual’s garden but there was much copying of other artists’ work. That commissioned by Rudolf II of Austria of Emanuel Sweerts, a Dutch natural history dealer, was among the earliest - completed in 1609 and originally published in 1612; the copy displayed is one of many reissues and the illustration of fritillaries (pars 2, plate 7) demonstrates incidentally an interesting example of a volume incompletely coloured by its owner. Engraving permitted more accurate detail than woodcut, with hatching, stippling and white gaps to give a three-dimensional effect and simulate reflexion from shiny leaves. Sweerts and Johann Theodor de Bry were the first (who copied whom is unclear) to establish the convention of portraying lower stem with bulb or root alongside severed upper stem and flower in order to reproduce the plant life-size on the page.

Paul Hermann, Horti Academici Lugduno-Batavi catalogus
Leiden, 1687

Paul Hermann (1646?-1695) here portrays the plants grown in the botanic garden at Leiden. Like Geranium africanum (pp 280-1) they were mainly imported from the Dutch colonies. He also painted, in water-colour, many plants from Ceylon. Half a century after his death these paintings were lent to Linnaeus and were the inspiration for the latter’s Flora Zeylanica (1747).

Maria Sibylla Merian, Der Raupen wunderbare Verwandlung und sonderbare Blumen-nahrung. 2 vols
Nuremberg, 1679-1683 d3-b.19-20 (Euing Collection)

Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) was educated in Germany. Her Swiss father, Matthias, was an engraver, while her maternal grandfather was the Dutch botanical engraver Johann Theodor de Bry and her art stems largely from the great flower painters of seventeenth-century Holland. Her plants are drawn with care and expertise and she succeeded in transmitting to her contemporaries the exotic colours of tropical flowers and insects at a time when they were almost entirely unknown to Europeans. Her imagination had been fired by the great collection of insects of H. van Sommerdyck in Amsterdam. According to Goethe she was determined to rival the exploits of the French naturalist Charles Plumier who had visited the West Indies and in 1698 Maria and her daughter Dorothea embarked for Surinam (Dutch Guiana) where they spent two years collecting and painting insects and the plants on which they lived. However Maria’s first book, Der Raupen wunderbare Verwandlung, was confined to European species, such as Borago coerulea (T. 2, plate 32). It was subsequently expanded in Dutch as Der rupsen begin, voedgel en wonderbaare vorandering (Amsterdam, 1683-1717). A Latin translation, Erucarum ortus: alimentum et paradosa metamorphosi, was published by Dorothea as a memorial in 1717.

Jan Commelin, Horti medici Amstelodamensis rariorum ... plantarum ... descriptio et icones. 2 vols Amsterdam, 1697-1701 
X.1.6-7 (Hunterian Collection) Figure 51 (X.1.7): Convolvulus canariensis

Jan Commelin was director of the Amsterdam physic gardens. He died in 1698 and the second volume of Horti medici was completed by his nephew, Caspar Commelin. Most of the original paintings for the work were by Jan and Maria Moninckx. It is typical of many books describing gardens for plants imported to European countries from their new colonies.

Christoph Jakob Trew, Plantae selectae. 2 vols in 1
Nuremberg, 1750-1773
As.1.15 (Hunterian Collection)

Georg Dionysius Ehret (1708-1770) - one of the greatest of eighteenth-century botanical artists - was the son of a Heidelberg market gardener who taught him to draw. After a spell in charge of one of the Elector’s gardens he started his painting career under the Margrave of Baden at nearby Karlsruhe. He became acquainted with Christoph Jakob Trew, a wealthy Nuremberg physician with an interest in botany, who commissioned him to prepare illustrations for his Plantae selectae during travels through Switzerland, France, England and Holland from 1732 onwards. At the same time he became acquainted with some of the most influential botanists of his day, including Carolus Linnaeus, Bertrand de Jussieu and Sir Hans Sloane. He illustrated Hortus Cliffortianus for George Clifford, with whom Linnaeus was staying at Hartekamp at the time of Ehret’s visit. He married the sister-in-law of Philip Miller, author of the monumental Gardener’s dictionary, and in 1736 made England his permanent home. For a short time in 1750 he was curator of Oxford Botanic Garden. He quickly became a favourite of the English aristocracy and was in much demand as a tutor of flower painting. Many thousands of his drawings and paintings, usually on vellum rather than paper, now survive in the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Library of the Royal Botanical Garden at Kew, the Natural History Museum, and the Hunt Botanical Library. The genus Ehretia was named after him. He died at Chelsea. Plantae selectae was issued in ten parts containing in all a hundred engravings, including the splendid Lilium Martagon canadense (plate 11). A further twenty plates were included in a supplement, published 1790-1792, but over a hundred of Ehret’s drawings for Trew were not published.

John Martyn, Historia plantarum rariorum
Nuremberg, 1752
Sp. Coll. e 99 Plate 2: Geranium africanum

John Martyn (1699-1768) was a man of varied activities - translator of Joseph Pitton de Tournefort’s Histoire des plantes qui naissent aux environs de Paris, apothecary, co-publisher of The Grub-Street journal, professor of botany at Cambridge, editor and translator of Virgil’s Georgics and Bucolics. He was born in London and in 1721, at the age of only 22, he founded the Botanical Society of London. However he is now best remembered as the author of the first botanical book with plates printed in colour (subsequently retouched by hand). The first edition of this Historia plantarum rariorum appeared between 1728 and 1737, but the same techniques of colour printing were used for the German edition displayed here. Most of the plates were made from drawings by Jacob van Huysum (1686-1740), youngest of a family of flower painters from Amsterdam, but a few were engraved after designs by William Houston (c.1695-1733), a Scottish ship’s surgeon, botanist and collector of plants from Central America and the West Indies.

Augustin-Pyramus de Candolle, Plantarum historia succulentarum, ou, Histoire naturelle des plantes grasses 2 vols in 1
Paris, 1799
Sp Coll e 121 (Walker-Arnott Collection)

Pierre Joseph Redouté (1759-1840) - a flower painter of extraordinary ability - was born into a family of painters at St Hubert in the Ardennes. For a while he assisted his brother as decorator for the Théâtre italien in Paris while studying under Gerard van Spaendonck (1746-1822) at the University. Painting in the Jardin du Roi he was noticed by Charles Louis L’Héritier de Brutelle (1746-1800), an amateur botanist of considerable influence and means. Redouté subsequently produced 54 of the 91 plates for his Stirpes (1785-1791). He learned the techniques of stipple engraving for colour printing while working in London on 22 of the 35 plates in James Sowerby’s Serium Anglicum (1788) but his first colour-printed work was for the Swiss-born botanist Augustin-Pyramus de Candolle’s Plantarum historia succulentarum. Cotyledon orbiculata (plate 76) came from South Africa and, like most of the plants described in this work would have required greenhouse protection in European winters. Redouté was commissioned as drawing master to Marie Antoinette, survived the fall of the monarchy and found a new patroness in the Empress Josephine. She lavished huge sums of money on her garden at Malmaison and the publication of giant folios to record her plants for posterity. To this period belong the eight sumptuous volumes of Redouté’s Les liliacées (1802-1816) - again to accompany text by Candolle - followed by the most famous of his works, Les roses (1817-1824).

Heinrich Gottlieb Ludwig Reichenbach, Iconographia botanica seu plantae criticae. 10 vols
Leipzig, 1823-32
RQ 51-60

The botanist and zoologist Heinrich Gottlieb Ludwig Reichenbach (1793-1879) was professor at Dresden University. His major works included Handbuch der natürlichen Pflanzensystems (1837) and Icones florae Germanicae et Helveticae, which was started by him in 1834, continued by his son Heinrich Gustav Reichenbach (1824-1889), also an accomplished artist, and eventually completed by others in 1912. For Iconographia botanica seu plantae criticae he produced no less than 1000 plates, exemplified by Gladiolus byzantinus (plate 643). This work was complemented by a further 250 plates for his Iconographia botanica exotica (1827-1830).

Robert Sweet, Geraniaceae, or, The natural order of Gerania. 5 vols
London, 1820-1830
Sp Coll q 408-412

Edwin Dalton Smith (1800-1852?) specialised in portrait miniatures. He was taught by his father, Anker Smith (1759-1819), himself a noted engraver and miniaturist. Edwin’s skill in small-scale work is evident in his plates for Benjamin Maund’s Botanic garden (1825-1836). However most of his botanical work was for Robert Sweet (1783-1835), including the 1100 plates for Geraniaceae. Erodium multicaule (vol. 2, plate 137) was raised in England from seed imported from Russia - probably originating in Siberia. Sweet was born at Cockington in Devon but soon moved to the London area. He became a nurseryman successively at Stockwell (1810-1815), Fulham (1815-1819) and Chelsea (1819-1826) and in 1824 was accused but acquitted of receiving plants stolen from Kew. The genus Sweetia was named in his honour following his death - precipitated by a brain fever - at Chelsea.

The botanical register. Vol. 11
London, 1825
Bl 17-e.16

Botanical illustration is but one of many claims to fame of John Lindley (1799-1865). Son of a Norfolk nurseryman, he displayed an interest in horticulture from an early age. By the time he moved to London, aged 20, as library assistant to Sir Joseph Banks, he had already translated and published Louis-Claude-Marie Richard’s Démonstrations botaniques, ou, Analyse du fruit. Shortly afterwards he became assistant secretary, then successively vice-secretary and secretary until his death, of the Horticultural Society, Professor of Botany at University College from 1829 to 1860, and superintendant of the Chelsea Physic Garden from 1836. He wrote several works on botanical theory, promoting the natural system of classification developed by Jussieu and Candolle in opposition to the Linnaean system, as well as two major treatises on Orchidaceae and the report that established Kew gardens as a national institution. From 1826 he was editor of the Botanical register but had already produced plates for it and as early as 1820 the Horticultural Society had commissioned him to draw roses and larches. Morea herberti (fol. 949) from the garden of George Herbert probably originated in South America. No doubt because of other pressures on Lindley’s time, from 1831 the Botanical register and most of his own books were illustrated for him by Miss S.A. Drake.

William Baxter, British phaenogamous botany. 7 vols
Oxford, 1834-1843
RB 244-250 (Walker-Arnott Collection)

Isaac Russell, who flourished as a botanical draughtsman and glass painter at Oxford during the second quarter of the nineteenth century, drew over 200 plates for this work. His original drawings for it, along with those of his eight fellow artists, now form part of the Reginald Cory bequest in the Royal Horticultural Society’s Lindley Library. Many of the plates were coloured by Baxter’s daughters and daughter-in-law. Baxter himself (1788-1871) was curator of Oxford Botanic Garden for 40 years. The Tree Mallow, Lavatera arborea (vol. 2, plate 106), is a European native.

Thomas Moore, The field botanist’s companion
London, 1862

Walter Hood Fitch (1817-1892) was born in Glasgow and apprenticed to a firm of calico printers there. In his spare time he worked for Sir William Hooker, Professor of Botany at Glasgow University, and in 1841 accompanied him to Kew. For the next half-century virtually all illustrated publications emanating from Kew were Fitch’s work. Over 10,000 of his drawings were published, including 2,900 plates for Curtis’s Botanical magazine and some 500 for Hooker’s Icones plantarum. As its title suggests, the plants in Moore’s Field botanist’s companion were found wild in Europe. His lithographs were reputedly drawn directly onto stone without preliminary sketches. The genus Fitchia was named after him.

The garden. Vol. 55
London, 1899
RQ 1033

Henry George Moon (1857-1905) was born at Barnet, London. He studied at art school but worked in a solicitor’s office until 1880 when he was invited by one of the most influential of nineteenth-century gardeners, William Robinson, to be an artist for The garden. A few years later he was commissioned by Frederick Sander to make plates for his Reichenbachia (1888-94). He subsequently married Sander’s daughter. In the later part of his life he concentrated more on landscape painting, but continued to produce plates for The garden, such as the purple Hibiscus cannabinus - a new variety of Indian Hemp (plate 1218), until shortly before his death at St Albans. In his obituary for Flora and sylva Robinson wrote: ‘He always painted one flower in each group as its focus or most important point, and the leaf-colouring was always studied from nature and not merely a conventional green.... His outlines were of the slightest, often done with a brush dipped in local colour ... and were then finished with a full brush of the predominant colour. His powers as a pure colourist were remarkable, and depended on his knowledge and experience of wet colours, and the exact effect they would have on dry paper.’

Curtis’s Botanical magazine
London, 1787 -
Sp Coll periodicals
Plate 630: Ixia Columellaris (Variegated Ixia) by Sydenham Edwards from vol. 17, 1803

William Curtis (1746-1799) began his career as an apothecary apprenticed to his uncle at Alton, Hampshire. He then moved to London to practice his trade and was elected demonstrator at the Society of Apothecaries’ garden at Chelsea in 1773. He left this post in 1777 and the following year opened his own London Botanic Garden at Lambeth Marsh; his 1783 catalogue lists 6,000 plants. His Flora Londinensis (1774) was a financial failure and never completed. However his Botanical magazine, founded in 1787, was a resounding success and continued without interruption for nearly two centuries until merged with The Kew magazine in 1984.

Sydenham Teast Edwards (1769?-1819) was the son of a schoolmaster and organist in Abergavenny. His artistic talent was brought to the attention of William Curtis who arranged for him to be trained in London as a botanical artist. He was only nineteen when, in 1788, his first plate was published in Curtis’s Botanical magazine, which had been started the previous year. More than 1700 followed in the next 27 years - some published posthumously - to the virtual exclusion of other artists. Edwards also contributed to Alexander McDonald’s Complete dictionary of practical gardening and R.J. Thornton’s lavish Temple of Flora - as well as producing his own volume of coloured engravings of British dogs. A few years before his death he left the Botanical magazine to found his own Botanical register.

Curtis had died in 1799 and been succeeded as editor by John Sims (1749-1831), who handed the role over to William Jackson Hooker (1785-1865) in 1826. Hooker was Professor of Botany at Glasgow (1820-1841) and became Director of Kew in 1841. He was sole illustrator of the Botanical magazine for nearly a decade and also did most of the additional drawings for the 2nd edition of Flora Londinensis (1817-1828). Although Hooker was a highly accomplished illustrator himself this task was delegated progressively to Walter Hood Fitch (1817-1892). His nephew John Nugent Fitch (1840-1927) succeeded him, producing 2,500 lithographs for the Botanical magazine. Between them the Fitches were its sole illustrators for 71 of a span of 82 years.

Thunbergia Harrisii is one of 100 species from South Africa and Madagascar, named after Carl Peter Thunberg (1743-1822), latterly Professor of Medicine and Botany at Uppsala University. He had earlier travelled in Java and - disguised as a Dutchman and with the help of the Dutch East India Company - in Japan. Among 1,000 plants new to botany he brought back Lilium japonicum and Chaenomeles japonica. T. Harrisii was grown from seed collected by George, 1st Baron Harris (1746-1829), Governor of Madras.

Plate 4498 from Volume 83 (3rd series, v.13), 1857: Thunbergia Harrisii (Lord Harris's Thunbergia) by Walter Fitch

The Himalayan Blue Poppy, Meconopsis betonicifolia baileyi (plate 9185, vol. 153 (1927)), was collected in Tibet by Frank Kingdon Ward in 1924. It was one of the most spectacular plants introduced to European cultivation this century and Lilian Snelling (1879-1972) was perhaps the finest of twentieth-century flower painters. But her career marked the end of an era. For thirty years she was principal artist for Curtis’s Botanical magazine. Until 1948 she redrew her original water colours onto zinc plates for reproduction, then hand-painted a master print for a team of colourists to copy. However the economics of modern technology eventually triumphed and for the last few years to her retiral in 1952 her plates were reproduced photographically.

She was born and died at St Mary Cray, Kent. However from 1916 to 1921 she trained at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh under its Keeper, Sir Isaac Bayley Balfour. At the same time she studied lithography under Frank Morley Fletcher, Director of the Edinburgh College of Art, and his influence is apparent in the freshness of her colours and meticulous attention to detail. In addition to her work for Curtis’s Botanical magazine she provided superb plates for Arthur Grove’s Supplement to Elwes’ Monograph of the genus Lilium and Sir Frederick Stern’s Study of the genus Paeonia. The Royal Horticultural Society honoured her with its highest award - the Victoria Medal of Honour - and Lord Morton, writing of her in the Society’s Journal, concluded: ‘She was supreme at producing a drawing where all the botanical characters of a plant are readily identifiable in a portrait which as a whole is aesthetically pleasing. Such is the art of botanical illustration ....’

Select bibliography


E. Bénézit, Dictionnaire critique et documentaire des peintres, sculpteurs, dessinateurs et graveurs (nouvelle éd., 10 vols, Paris, 1976)

Wilfrid Blunt, The art of botanical illustration (London, 1950)
[NB. New edition, revised and enlarged by William T. Stearn (Woodbridge, 1994)]

Alice M. Coats, The treasury of flowers (London, 1975)


Ray Desmond, Dictionary of British and Irish botanists and horticulturists, including plant collectors and botanical artists (3rd ed., London, 1977)

Brent Elliott, ‘Botanical illustration in the Lindley Library’, The garden, vol. 120 (1995), 81-3, 204-7

Brent Elliott, ‘The printing of botanical illustrations’, The garden, vol. 118 (1993), 155-7, 220-2

The new Royal Horticultural Society dictionary of gardening (4 vols, London, 1992)