By Rebecca Pou, Archivist
It’s been a cold and snowy January, and with almost two months of winter still to come I’m drawn to the botanical selections in our collection. My choice for item of the month is a periodical, the Botanical Magazine (most commonly known by its later title, Curtis’ Botanical Magazine).
“Elizabeth Christina, one of the daughters of Linnaeus, is said to have perceived the flowers to emit spontaneously, at certain intervals, sparks like those of electricity, visible only in the dusk of the evening, and which ceased when total darkness came on.” (Nasturtium, plate 23, volume 1, 1793.) Click to enlarge.
In addition to being a very beautiful publication, the Botanical Magazine is notable for being the longest running botanical periodical featuring color illustrations of plants.1 The first issue of the magazine was published in 1787 by William Curtis (1746-1799) and today it is published by Kew Gardens.1,2 Curtis, an apothecary turned botanist, was the botanic demonstrator to the Society of Apothecaries at Chelsea in the 1770s.2,3 He also gave public lectures and maintained a botanic garden in London.2 Before the Botanical Magazine, Curtis began publishing the Flora Londenensis, a grand, folio-size work documenting local plant life. This proved too costly and Curtis gave up the venture in 1787.2,3
The Botanical Magazine; or, flower-garden displayed : in which the most ornamental foreign plants, cultivated in the open ground, the green-house, and the stove, will be accurately represented in their natural colours was smaller and more affordable than the Flora Londenensis; Curtis created it in response to demand for a publication concerning foreign plants.2,3 Most of the plants represented in the early volumes are from Europe, Eastern North America, and the Cape of Good Hope. According to Hemsley, author of A new and complete index to the Botanical magazine, “Scarcely any very striking or noteworthy subjects appeared, and new species . . . were exceedingly rare,” but this did not hinder the magazine’s sales. The work was quickly a success, selling 3,000 copies a month. Volumes 1-6 were later reissued, presumably due to their popularity (some of our volumes are reprints).2
Each monthly issue contained three hand-colored plates accompanied by descriptive text.2 An exception, Strelitzia, had a fold-out plate and more in-depth description. As you will see below, variation in format was not something Curtis took lightly. The majority of the early illustrations were drawn by Sydenham Edwards.2,3 While the plates are the highlight of the magazine, Curtis’ enthusiasm for the plants is also engaging, and so each image is accompanied by a quote from the plant’s description.
Click on an image to view the gallery of plates. Enjoy, and stay warm!
“This very singular plant is a native of the Cape of Good Hope, where it grows and flourishes with the Stapelia birfuta.” (Variegated Stapelia, plate 26, volume 1, 1793)
“The Carnation here exhibited is a seedling raised by Mr. Franklin, of Lambeth-Marsh, an ingenious cultivator of these flowers, whose name it bears: we have not figured it as the most perfect flower of the kind, either in form or size, but as being a very fine specimen of the sort, and one whose form and colours it is in the power of the artist pretty exactly to imitate.” (Franklin’s Tartar, plate 39, volume 2, 1788)
“Though a native of the East, as its name imports, it bears the severity of our climate without injury, flowers in May, and as its blossoms are extremely shewy, it gives great brilliancy to the flower-garden or plantation . . . ” (Eastern Poppy, plate 57, volume 2, 1788)
“The green-house, to which it properly belongs, can scarcely boast a more shewy plant; its blossoms, when expanded by the heat of the sun, and it is only when the sun shines on them that they are fully expanded, exhibit an unrivalled brilliancy of appearance.” (Rigid-Leaved Gorteria, plate 90, volume 3, 1792)
“This species, by far the most magnificent of the Iris tribe, is a native of Persia, from a chief city of which it takes the name of Susiana: Linnaeus informs us, that it was imported into Holland from Constantinople in 1573.” (Chalcedonian Iris, plate 91, volume 3, 1792)
“In order that we may give our readers an opportunity of seeing a coloured representation of one of the most scarce and magnificent plants introduced to our country, we have in this number deviated from our usual plan . . . and though in so doing we shall have the pleasure of gratifying the warm wishes of many of our readers, we are not without our apprehensions least others may not feel perfectly well satisfied: should it prove so, we wish such to rest assured that this is a deviation in which we shall very rarely indulge, and never but when something uncommonly beautiful or interesting presents itself . . .” (Strelitzia, plate 119, volume 4, 1791)
“A finer sight can scarcely be imagined than a tree of this sort, extending to a great breadth on a wall with a western aspect, in the Apothecaries Garden at Chelsea, where it was planted by Mr. Forsyth about the year 1774, and which at this moment (April 28, 1791) is thickly covered with large pendulous branches of yellow, I had almost said golden flowers; for they have a peculiar richness, which it is impossible to represent in colouring . . .” (Winged-Podded Sophora, plate 197, volume 5, 1792)
“The Pelargonium tricolor, a species perfectly new, in point of beauty is thought to eclipse all that have hitherto been introduced to this country; its blossoms are certainly the most shewy, in a collection of plants they are the first to attract the eye, the two uppermost petals are of a beautiful red, having their bases nearly black, the three lowermost are white, hence its name of tricolor . . .” (Three-Coloured Crane’s-Bill, plate 240, volume 7, 1794)
“We rejoice in the opportunity afforded us, of presenting our readers with the coloured engraving of a plant recently introduced to this country, which, as an ornamental one, promises to become an acquisition highly valuable.” (Indian Chrysanthemum, plate 327, volume 10, 1796)
“We do not remember ever to have been so forcibly struck with the beautiful appearance of a flower, as with that of the present Ixia, nor do we recollect any one that can boast colours at once so various, so brilliant, and so pleasing; placed by the side of the Amaryllis formosissima, sarniensis, villata, Cistus formosus, Pelargonium tricolor, or a hundred other plants of the more beautiful sorts, the eye would be fixed by this alone.” (Three-Coloured Ixia, plate 381, volume 11, 1797)
“The Ixia here represented was drawn last Summer from a specimen unusually fine, which flowered with Mr. Colvili, Nurseryman, King’s-Road, May 24, 1797; it appears to be a very distinct species, not less distinguished for the singularity than the brilliancy of its colours, and is one of those recently imported from the Cape by way of Holland.” (Red-Blue Ixia, plate 410, volume 12, 1798)
“It appears to be a point not yet fully determined, whether the present plant exhibits the appearances belonging to it in a state of nature, or those which are in a certain degree the effect of accident, or of art . . . as none of the authors who have seen it in China or Japan (where it is said not only to be much cultivated but indigenous) describe its fruit, we are inclined on that account to regard it, in a certain degree, as monstrous.” (Garden Hydrangea, plate 438, volume 13, 1799)
“It must be confessed there are few papilionaceous flowers more handsome, the buds in particular are inexpressibly rich in colour, these are produced from June to August, but are rarely succeeded by ripe seeds in this country.” (Large-Flowered Flat-Pea, plate 469, volume 14, 1800)
1. Kew Royal Botanical Gardens. Curtis’s Botanical Magazine. Available at: http://www.kew.org/science-conservation/research-data/publications/curtis-botanical-magazine. Accessed January 23, 2015.
2. Hemsley, W. Botting. A new and complete index to the Botanical magazine. London: Lovell Reeve, 1906. Available at: https://books.google.com/books?id=OlhNAAAAYAAJ&pg=PR3#v=onepage&q&f=false. Accessed January 23, 2015.
3. Curtis Museum Alton. William Curtis the Botanist. Available at: http://www3.hants.gov.uk/curtis-museum/alton-history/william-curtis.htm. Accessed January 23, 2015.
Kathleen O’Donnell MBA, MPH, MA
Senior Vice President
The New York Academy of Medicine
1216 Fifth Avenue
New York, New York 10029