A Finer Sight Can Scarcely Be Imagined: Curtis’ Botanical Magazine (Item of the Month)

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.” (Plate 23, volume 1 reissue, 1793)

“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!

References

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.

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