In Portland, the daffodils and crocuses are beginning to appear and the Powell's Spring Fever Sale
has started. The avid gardeners who staff our Home and Garden store
are probably sharpening their shovels
and shaking out their hemp gardening aprons
in anticipation of the season.
Here in Rare Book Land, the sweet gardening seasons of spring, summer, and fall are only a page away. Open any volume of James Sowerby's masterpiece English Botany; or, Coloured Figures of British Plants to experience a garden on paper.
Published over a period of 24 years, English Botany consists of 36 volumes and contains an astounding 2,592 hand-colored plates. It would take over seven years to view each plate at a rate of one per day. Exhibiting one plate every two weeks, in the tradition of the University of Pittsburgh's exhibition of Audubon's Birds of America, would be serious job security.
English Botany is a product of the golden age of botanical illustration: 1750-1850. Microscopes and magnifying glasses were steadily improving, which allowed the botanist unprecedented views of the smallest parts of plants, and paint pigments were becoming available in a broader palette than ever before.
Natural history explorations also peaked during this time. On his famous first voyage, Captain Cook's ship Endeavour had to accommodate the crew and the "suite" of Mr. Joseph Banks: servants, two artists, one botanist, two dogs, and all of their luggage and equipment. The ship was 106 feet long. When one of the artists and Banks's secretary both died on the voyage, there was probably sadness and grief mixed with relief at having the additional elbow room.
James Sowerby is just one of the recognized masters of naturalistic illustration. Everyone knows John James Audubon and his birds, of course, but fewer know of the amazing artist Maria Sibylla Merian, renowned for her depictions of insects.
Or Nicolas Robert, whose artwork in the 17th century Livre des Tulipes is nothing short of delectable.
While the original publications of these botanical and natural histories are quite expensive, the good news is that there are affordable histories and compilations available, complete with beautiful reproductions of the spectacular artwork. If the subject interests you, Voyages of Discovery: Three Centuries of Natural History Exploration is highly recommended, as is Seba's Cabinet of Natural Curiosities and Plant Discoveries: A Botanist's Voyage through Plant Exploration.
The affordable reprints are gorgeous and informative, and will leave you enough green to buy yourself a pair of vegan gardening gloves and that final touch your garden deserves.