The Flora Londinensis: The Generalities and the Particulars

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Title Page of the Flora Londinensis, 1798

Flora Londinensis

or, Plates and descriptions of such plants as grow wild in the environs of London

William Curtis

The Work

As the Director of the Society of Apothecaries at the Chelsea Physic Garden, William Curtis began assembling materials for a large and comprehensive botanical guide to the flora of London and its environs as early as 1774.  The first volume was published in 1777 and the final one, which included a title and an index was published in 1798.

An examination of the complete Flora Londinensis in Gale/Cengage’s ECCO database, shows extensive front matter beyond the index, indicating that his intended audience was fellow botanists. There was also a long list of subscribers to the project included.

Thanks to the work of E. Charles Nelson (“Some Publication Dates for Parts of William Curtis’ “Flora LondinensisTaxon, Vol. 29, No. 5/6, November 1980), we know that subscribers were able to buy parts of the Flora in 1775, and they could pay to have them hand-colored before they received them.Image

More research would be required to enumerate the order in which the plates and descriptions were issued, but the general consensus between ESTC, ECCO and the UVic Library Catalog is that the book was issued in parts, originally 6 fascicles, to be bound into two volumes.

Title Page

This image was taken from the University of Victoria’s copy of the first volume of the Flora, and shows the title, author, publication data and the engraved vignette, captioned with excerpted verse from Mark Akenside’s Pleasures of the Imagination (1738).

with wise intent The hand of Nature on peculiar minds imprints a different bias, and to each decrees its province in the common toil. Of time, and space, and Fate’s unbroken chain,  And will’s quick impulse: others by the hand  She led o’er vales and mountains, to explore What healing virtue swells the tender veins Of herbs and flowers; or what the beams of moon Draw forth, distilling from the clifted rind In balmy tears. ” *

Preface

In the 1798 edition, an author’s preface is offered, which serves as a valuable document regarding not only the author’s intent and purpose, but also his response to his critics. This is also the only place in the text that hints at the arrangements made between Curtis and the illustrators, whose names generally appear within the illustrations themselves.

An interesting comparison can be made between the Flora Londinensis and the Flora Danica, begun in 1753 by G.C. Oeder and finished much later in 1883 (click here to browse the book in Denmark’s National Library in Cophenhagen online collections).  While both works were created for ostensibly similar purposes (as a reference work for botanists and horticultural experts), the Flora Londinensis is significantly larger in format, while the Flora Danica was meant to depict the plants as close to the actual size as possible.

The Particulars: The University of Victoria Special Collections Copy

The Flora Londinensis is an incredibly large work published in installments beginning in 1775.  We examined Volume I, which includes a preface with 3 indices organized by classification and order, alphabetically by Latin name, and alphabetically by English name.  Comparison of this volume with a digitized copy found through Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO) reveals that the hard copy is missing 11 pages of frontmatter, including a list of subscribers, a dedication page, general observations page, and an enumeration of the British Grasses.

Despite these missing pages, the size of the Flora invokes many questions:

  • Does the size invoke a sense of authority regarding its contents?
  • Does the size indicate an immediate sense of importance or wealth?
  • Was the book practical to use or was it meant to be aesthetically pleasing or both?
  • This book is much larger than the Flora Danica, a similar book in terms of content, and so is the size a means of chastising a competing author? Or instead, a way of marketing a specialist’s book to a larger wealthy audience interested in acquiring an objet d’art?

The Format

In his Preface, Curtis requests that his book be bound with the plates in order of the Linnaean classification system, with descriptions on the left page and a thin sheet of paper in between it and the large copperplate engravings on the right. In our copy, however, there is at least one plate missing (its description remaining) – Polygonum Persicaria, or the Common Spotted Persicaria – and several pages are bound out of order, with the illustration on the left and the description on the right. There are no onion skin pages in between description and illustration pages in our copy.

Curtis also requests that no page numbers be added at the time of binding, as they would interfere and detract from the illustrations.

The Binding

The book has a modern binding.

This copy has been recently rebound, by a firm here in Victoria, but its look and feel hearken back to much older aesthetics.

The Paper

Comparison of the watermark of Dutch papermaker Lubertus van Gerrevink (left) and the version found in the UVic Flora.

The paper used for printing the UVic Flora is quite thick, with chain lines visible and a large watermark most easily seen on the pages with engravings. As you can see, the papermaker who supplied this particular book copied and modified the device of  Dutch papermaker Lubertus van Gerrevink, whose work was known to be be of high quality. More research is required to learn about the L.V.G. watermark, and its relationship to the one used in our edition of the book.

Our group uses wax paper to make a rubbing of the watermark.

* Text copied from Google Books, which is, as we know, rife with OCR typos.

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2 Responses to The Flora Londinensis: The Generalities and the Particulars

  1. Pingback: South London Botanical Institute | Down Lambeth Way

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