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The Art of Botanical Illustration
Travel and Exploration

Curtis's Botanical Magazine


Exotic plants and flowers have fascinated botanists and amateur gardeners alike ever since the first specimens arrived in Europe around the mid-sixteenth century. Voyages of exploration and colonization brought back plants and animals for the royal gardens and for wealthy private collectors. Spanish, British, Dutch, French and German governments were interested in the medicinal, economic, and scientific uses of the new natural products. As the British empire expanded around the globe and plant material was sent home, the Royal Gardens at Kew became a center for the study of botany. Later, American explorers made botanical expeditions in the growing country, introducing hundreds of new species into cultivation.

Because of the difficulty of transporting live specimens to Europe from the Far East and the Americas, many explorers took artists with them to document plants and animals in their native environment. For example, Captain Cook traveled with a botanist and five artists during his round the world voyages.


Charles Plumier, 1646-1704
Description des Plantes de Amérique... Paris: Imprimerie Royale, 1693.

The French king Louis XIV sent the Minims friar Charles Plumier to the Caribbean to bring back plants and drawings. Plumier's six thousand original drawings were the basis for this work and were later used by Linnaeus as type specimens for his Species Pantarum of 1753.


Description des plantes nouvelles

Etienne Pierre Ventenat, 1757-1808.
Description des plantes nouvelles et peu connues, cultivees dans le jardin de J.M. Cels. Paris: De l'impr. de Crapelet, an 8, 1800.

This work describes the plants in the private garden of a wealthy gentleman. Jacques-Martin Cels (1743-1806) acquired many exotic plants from naturalist-explorers and was influential in stimulating the public's interest in new species. Cels asked Ventenat to produce an illustrated catalog of the many rare plants in his garden. The text includes information as to where the plant was found and by whom.The copper plate engravings were done from drawings by Redouté.


Frederick Pursh, 1774-1820.
Flora Americae Septentrionalis, or, A systematic arrangement and description of the plants of North America. 2nd ed. London: Printed for James Black and son..., 1816.

Frederick Pursh, a German botanist, emigratd to America in 1799 and worked in Philadelphia and New York. During the War of 1812, he moved to England and completed this work. This was the first North American flora to include plants from the Pacific coast, which Pursh obtained from Bernard M'Mahon, the Philadelphia nurseryman entrusted with the specimens brought back from the Lewis and Clark expedition.


North American Sylva

Francois André Michaux, 1770-1855.
The North American Sylva, or, A description of the forest trees of the United States, Canada and Nova Scotia ... Paris: Printed by C. D'Hautel, 1819.

This first comprehensive, illustrated book on American forest trees was the result of three trips Michaux made to the United States between 1785 and 1807. Michaux was originally looking for trees to build ships for the French navy. Among the artists involved in the project was P. J. Redouté. Redouté's skill is evident in these stipple engraved plates in the way the plants have a naturalness and gracefulness often lacking in the work of other artists.


Curtis's Botanical Magazine

The Botanical Magazine, or, Flower-garden displayed ... (London : Printed for W. Curtis by S. Couchman).

Curtis's Botanical Magazine sought to popularize and encourage the cultivation of new and wild species which were being discovered on botanical explorations around the world. It was first published in 1787 and is still published today. In its two hundred-year history, it has contained over ten thousand color illustrations. Many of the best-known British botanical illustrators have produced illustrations for the magazine. Curtis's is also noteworthy for its hiring of women illustrators throughout its history; in fact, during this century, most of its artists have been women. For most of its long history, all of the illustrations in the magazine were hand-colored. They did not make the change to printed color until 1948.


Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, 1817-1911.
The Rhododendrons of Sikkim-Himalaya: being an account, botanical and geographical, of the rhododendrons recently discovered in the mountains of eastern Himalaya, from drawings and descriptions made on the spot... 2nd ed. London: Reeve, Benham, and Reeve, 1849-1851.

Hooker, the son of the first official Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, traveled to the most remote places in the world collecting and sketching plantlife. He documented the plants of New Zealand, India, and West Africa, in addition to the Himalayas. His field sketches were drawn on lithography stone by Walter Hood Fitch, himself a skilled botanical artist. These boldly drawn and colored images appealed to the Victorian love of the exotic.


A Monograph of the Genius Lilium

Henry John Elwes, 1846-1922.
A Monograph of the Genius Lilium, by Henry John Elwes; illus. by W. H. Fitch. London: Taylor and Francis, 1877-80.

H. J. Elwes was not a professional botanist, but a collector, naturalist, and traveller who collectedspecimens of lilies during trips to the Himalayas and Korea. The monograph discusses the geographical distribution and cultivation of the flower and includes all varieties then known. All of the illustrations were done from live specimens and were drawn and lithographed by Walter Hood Fitch (1817-1892). Two later supplements were completed, the latest completed in 1962.


Jas. (James) Bateman, 1811-1897.
The Orchidaceae of Mexico and Guatemala. New York, Johnson Reprint Corp.; Amsterdam, Theatrvm Orbis Terrarvm Ltd. [1974].

The Orchidaceae of Mexico and Guatemala, originally published from 1837-1841, was one of the most elaborate productions depicting exotic flora. Only a hundred and twenty-five copies were printed. According to the art critic Wilford Blunt, the book is "probably the finest and certainly the largest botanical book ever produced with lithographic plates." The illustrations were taken from watercolor paintings done by Miss Drake and Mrs.Withers. The contributions by these two talented women went virtually unnoticed. Almost nothing was written about their contribution to the book. This copy is a modern facsimile of the original.




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