The History of Botanical Book Illustrations

by Bill Fleming, NSW Camellia Research Society

Originally published in Camellia News No. 174 – Winter 2007

When you look at the excellent quality colour illustrations in a copy of Camellia News it is easy to forget (that these are the culmination of a long history of botanical illustration which goes back hundreds of years. Over a long period I have collected a selection of prints and book plates which show this development, and I would like to present a brief survey of their history with some examples of camellias in particular.

My main interest has been in collecting hand-coloured pIates of the 18th and 19th century which are readily available at modest cost.

It is common to see the illustrations in any old book described as ‘engravings’. This is not necessarily correct, so I will first outline the various printing techniques which have been used over the last few centuries. The earliest technique employed was that of the woodcut. As the printing of books with moveable type developed from about 1450, it became increasingly common to include line drawings produced by this method. Most of the earliest botanical woodcuts were produced for ‘herbals’ books describing plants of medicinal interest. The technique involved drawing the image on a smooth piece of hardwood, after which the surface on both sides of the desired line was cut away leaving the image in relief, raised up from the background. This surface was then smeared with ink and a piece of paper pressed against it, transferring the design to the page.

From about 1700 the woodcut technique was replaced by engraving onto copper plates. This was an ‘intaglio’ technique. meaning that the lines were cut into the base rather than being raised up as in the woodcut. The engraver used a sharp steel tool to cut the design into the plate which was then coated with ink and wiped clean, leaving the ink in the furrows. A dampened sheet of paper was then pressed against the copper plate, transferring the design. Considerable pressure was required, so a clear plate line indented into the paper is usually visible. The deeper the engraved line, the more ink it held and the darker and bolder was the printed image.

Etching was a related technique where a metal plate was coated with wax and the design drawn with a sharp point, exposing the metal beneath. When dipped into acid the line was etched into the metal surface with the darkness of the line being controlled by the time the acid was allowed to attack the metal. This technique was most commonly used for ‘art’ prints, such as those of Norman Lindsay, and is uncommon for botanical illustrations.

Another type of engraved plate was that of the mezzotint. A copper plate was completely roughened so that the whole surface would hold ink and print completely black. The engraver then worked on the design by lightening the appropriate areas, resulting in a print with a very wide range of tones. This technique was used mainly for portraits, but one very famous botanical example, Thornton’ s ‘The Temple of Flora’ (1799-1807) was produced by this method.

From about 1840 the engraving techniques were largely replaced by lithography. The technique was based on the fact that water and grease do not mix, and involved drawing with greasy crayon on a flat polished stone. After a number of steps to fix the image, the stone was dampened with water and a roller charged with oil-based ink passed over it. resulting in the ink depositing only on the original drawn lines. When pressed onto a sheet of paper the image was transferred, and was a very close reproduction of the original. Because it was much faster than engraving and allowed a greater number of prints to be made, lithography became the dominant technique in the second half of the 19lh century.

All of the techniques described only produce a black and white image, and particularly for natural history plates there was the need for coloured illustrations. Until the 1850s this was almost always achieved by hand colouring of the black and white prints. Teams of women were employed to apply watercolour washes to the appropriate areas of the print based on a master copy usually coloured by the original artist. The quality of the work varies considerably, with the best examples being almost indistinguishable from a watercolour painting. Generally the best work was done for book plates in the 1800 to 1830 period, while some later mass-produced plates for gardening magazines are of inferior quality. There is widespread collector interest in hand-coloured images, particularly those of birds, other natural history subjects, and fashion plates.

89156The accompanying illustrations show three examples of hand-coloured plates; the first is a high quality hand-coloured engraving of Camellia japonica Atrorubens from Loddige’s ‘The Botanical Cabinet. Consisting of Coloured Delineations of Plants from all Countries’, published in 1818. This plate is beautifully hand-coloured and is typical of the excellent quality work of the early 19th century. Some of the names given in early plates such as this one are difficult to relate to modern camellias because some varieties have been lost or are rarely cultivated.

Also illustrated is a hand coloured plate of Camellia japonica Chandlerii from Paxton’s ‘Magazine of Botany’camellia-s
1836. Although described as a ‘magazine’ it is a quality production with careful hand colouring. The illustrated camellia, which is still in cultivation today, is described as ‘being raised by Mr. Chandler in 18I9, with large flowers, anemone-like, sometimes variegated, sometimes plain red’.

The third illustration is that of Camellia japonica Campbelli from the ‘The Floricultural Cabinet and Florist’s Magazine’ for September 1835, (shown with a Mimulus species on the same plate). This was a more mass-produced magazine, copies of which are commonly available, and the plates are not coloured to the same quality as the previous examples.

89157The need for hand colouring declined from around 1850 as chromolithography developed. This was an extension of lithography by producing separate stones for each of the colours required in the image, which when printed in perfect register gave a very high quality coloured image. In some cases 10 or more separate colours were used to produce the print. Chromolithographs have a rather greasy, shiny appearance because of the thick layers of oily pigments. Most botanical illustrations for books in the second half of the 19th century were produced by this method. These plates have a bright, attractive appearance but to my taste lack the vitality of hand-coloured prints. Because chromolithography was a much cheaper process, hand colouring was then rarely used. although it was retained for high quality fashion plates until around 1900.

These processes were in their turn replaced by the invention of the photographically based four-colour process where the image is made lip of coloured dots of cyan, magenta, yellow and black, a process still universally employed today for coloured printing. Unfortunately this led to a general reduction in colour print quality during most of the 20th century, although in the last 20 years the quality of colour printing has greatly improved due technological and printing ink developments.

If you look back at gardening books produced 50 years ago the coloured illustrations are very dull and not very sharp when compared to modern versions. There were some good quality plates produced for more expensive books, the work of Paul Jones for ‘The Camellia’ by B. L. Urquhart (1956 and 1960) being an excellent example.

One other technique for colouring was that of pochoir where separate stencils were used to add the different colours. The pochoir technique was mainly used for high quality fashion prints in the early part of the 20’h century, and is shown by the plate of ‘La Dame Aux Camellias’ by George Barbier from Gazette Du Bon Ton 1923. This is a rare occurrence of camellias in fashion plates, and shows an actress in the famous title role of the play by Alexandre Dumas (also adapted as the opera La Traviata by Verdi).

As mentioned earlier, the earliest botanical books were herbals containing descriptions and illustrations of medicinal and food plants, but from the early 1600s onwards there was increasing interest in ornamental plants. Many beautiful flower books were produced over the next few hundred years, usually as large format engravings with hand colouring. A major driving force for these publications was the enormous development of botanical exploration during the 1700 and 1800s. As explorers and plant collectors scoured Asia, the Americas and Australia looking for new and interesting plants there was a great trend in Europe for the rich to have enormous botanical collections.

Many hundreds of books and magazines with beautiful hand-coloured plates were produced to illustrate these new plant discoveries. Very famous examples which are often seen as modern reproductions are Thornton’s ‘Temple of Flora ‘ (1799 -1807) and Redoute’s ‘Les Liliaces’ and ‘Les Roses’ (1817-24). Original plates from these books now sell for many hundreds (or even thousands) of dollars each. Probably the most commonly encountered hand-coloured plates come from Curtis’s ‘Botanical Magazine’ which was continuously produced from 1787 into the 20th century and included thousands of different plants. This and many other publications were produced as monthly parts which were sent to subscribers who usually bound them in to annual volumes. Other plates were produced for encyclopaedias and similar publications, and in Victorian times there was a vogue for books containing poetry and hand-coloured flower prints.

It is easy to acquire an interesting collection of hand-coloured botanical plates at reasonable cost. The price range is very great: the cheapest are only a few dollars because they show plants which although they might have been botanically interesting in their day, are not very attractive. A picture of paspalum or some similar grass is not in great demand, even if it is 200 years old! The more photogenic the plant, the higher the price, with many attractive plates available in the 10 to 30 dollar range. Popular flowers such as roses, rhododendrons, waratahs, and of course camellias tend to be much more expensive, the value being determined by the size of the plate and the quality of the colouring. Anyone interested in purchasing plates would be best advised to start on eBay which in recent years has become a major trading site for antique books and prints. Framed prints are often available in antique shops, but prices tend to be very high. Some experience is needed to distinguish original hand-coloured prints from modern coloured reproductions, but inspection with a 10 times magnifying glass will clearly show that the watercolour wash slightly overlaps the engraved lines in some places, even in high quality plates. Any plate which when magnified can be seen to be made up of patterns of four different coloured dots is a modem reproduction.

Original hand-coloured plates have a wonderful texture and character which is not matched by modern coloured printing and provide a fascinating area for collection and study.


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