The idea of an exhibit of some of our botanical books seemed to be perfect. The stacks are filled with beautifully illustrated botanicals. That soon became the problem. Imagine that you are given entry to Aladdin's treasure cave with one small sack and told that you may take anything you desire. But, although you may fill the sack, you may not take anything else. You fill the sack and then immediately find another gem. What to do? Rummage through the sack and take something out. This was repeated many times as I sat on the floor in the stacks looking through our many beautiful books. What remains can only be a sampling. The grandeur of the whole treasure cave is only barely glimpsed.
The focus of the exhibit is illustration. There is just passing mention of the founder of taxonomy Carl Linnæus. Works by John Ray and John Evelyn of the 17th century are not shown. The eye is the target and the accompanying text is only complementary. The various techniques employed to create the images are explained to give some sense of the means used to create the different effects. The technology of a period has benefits and limitations. The methods used to illustrate botany books evolved as did printing and they have been applied in all printed visual representations of their time.
Likewise, the nature and appeal of botanical illustration has evolved. The herbals, which are the foundation of botanical illustration, were directed to scholars, primarily physicians, yet Mattioli's 1544 Commentarii is reputed to have sold nearly 40,000 copies in various editions and translations, surely a best seller acquired by nonspecialists. To go about 300 hundred years further, there were the wonderful Victorian illustrated books, which were surely purchased by those who had neither gardens nor greenhouses. It is the eye and the eye is entranced.
The exhibit is divided into six sections:
Herbals are a form of materia medica which examines the worlds of animal, vegetable, mineral for their therapeutic or poisonous effect. Herbals concentrate on the effects of plants and try to describe and illustrate them so that physicians may be able to identify them. The books have indexes to common names, Latin names, and also for the illnesses the plants would cure, such as, "For the swelling of the Goute" in Dodoens. The quality of the images can vary, which did make the gathering of plants somewhat risky for the patients.
An offshoot of herbals, books on gardening encompassed more, most importantly propagation. Gardens began as simple kitchen gardens and orchards, then expanded to include the development of formal flower gardens and exotics. The concern was no longer solely medical. In John Parkinson's book on gardening, the pure pleasure and joy of growing plants simply because they produce beautiful flowers is luminously apparent. Parkinson's name comes up many times in the exhibit.
Along with other valuable commodities, plants and plant specimens were shipped back to Europe. Much of the work of identification of new plants and animals was specifically directed and people in America would be contracted to supply specimens. Beyond the purely scientific interest and the desire for exotics in gardens, the contribution of food plants, such as the potato and tomato, had a revolutionary culinary impact.
As the study of plants became more scientific and the popularity of exotics in formal gardens increased, there was a demand for books related to specific plants. Many of these books were printed in a large format with an emphasis on ornamental plants. They are at the height of color printing of their time.
Plants began to appear in periodicals of a scientific nature, like the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, which was first issued in 1666. All aspects of the sciences appeared in its pages, including botany. Over a century later, William Curtis founded a journal that was exclusively devoted to botany with equal measure given to scientific and aesthetic considerations.
The most surprising thing about children's literature on botany is their complexity. Most read like a thinly disguised college textbook. Although the context is that of a children's book, the content is assuredly not. Rita Smith, curator of the Baldwin Library of Historical Children's Literature, assisted in the selection of the titles displayed.
In entries, a citation to the Hunt catalogue is given where appropriate. The full citation to the Hunt catalogue is given at the end of the exhibit catalogue along with other selected references. The Hunt catalogue is of works up through 1800.
We gratefully thank the Howe Society for their generous support of this exhibit. Thanks also go to Barbara Hood and Bill Hanssen for their assistance with design and print production.
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Created: December 23, 2004