Thursday, May 15, 2008

Book Review - 1001 Plant and floral illustrations from early herbals

I'm going to the Chelsea Flower Show next Wednesday and in order to keep me in a state of peak anticipation I'm having a bit of a binge on a botanical art/flowers/gardens theme. (You can see my latest sketch of a garden in Spring at Sissinghurst on Travels with a Sketchbook in......)

Following my visit last month to the new Shirley Sherwood Gallery at Kew Gardens (Kew opens the world's first dedicated botanical art gallery), I bought three books in the excellent shop at Kew Gardens last week. I found the examples of early herbals in the exhibition to be very interesting and alll the books I bought illustrations of early illustrations of plants and flowers found in herbals and florilegia. I'm going to review each of them in turn.

All the books are essentially 'picture' books and they are:
  • 1001 Plant and Floral Illustrations: From Early Herbals (Dover Pictorial Archive Series) - Richard G Hatton
  • Besler's Book of Flowers and Plants: 73 Full-Color Plates from Hortus Eystettensis, 1613 (Dover Pictorial Archive Series) - by Basilius Besler
  • Merian's Antique Botanical Prints CD-ROM and Book (Pictorial Archives) by Maria Sybylla Merian
As I enjoy pen and ink I'm intending to study the techniques used to both design for a rectangular space and how flowers, plants and insects are being rendered as engravings or wood cuts. I can already see some similarities with the way I draw - which I suspect is because I've studied historical drawings in the past!

I like the idea of starting to develop a series of drawings of flowers found in English gardens in the style of an early herbal. My main problem is going to be about drawing plants when I don't have them with their roots in front of me!

1001 Plant and Floral Illustrations: From Early Herbals (Dover Pictorial Archive Series) - Richard G Hatton

If you click the link (to Amazon) you can see inside this book. In reality there's very little text and an awful lot of engravings and illustrations used in early herbals. I find the herbals to be very attractive in their simplicity.

Richard G Hatton compiled a book of illustrations taken from his earlier book The Craftsman's Plant Book. I found a first edition leather bound first edition (1909) of this being offered for £150 on the internet so this paperback version for £17 is something of a bargain!

This version includes the captions from the 1909 edition in their original form.

Hatton had taken the images from the most prominent sixteenth century herbals or 'Books of Healing".

Kreuter Buch (Strasburg 1546)
Heironymus Bock 1498 - 1554
Cornelius J Hauck Botanical Collection

Cincinatti Historical Society Library

An example of what one looks like is on the right. This is the Kreuter Buch ("Plant book") by Hieronymus Bock - one of the three German fathers of botanical art. The first edition describes German plants, including their names, characteristics, and medical uses but was not illustrated. Later editions were illustrated with 550 woodcuts by the Renaissance artist David Kandel.
These early herbals were painstakingly drawn from first hand observations by their authors, accounting for the variety of styles present in the illustrations. Many follow a simple stylised formula that reduces the irregular appearance of wild plants to a more aesthetically pleasing symmetry with leaves, branches and flowers carefully arranged in a vertically oriented patterns. At the other end of the spectrum are the more complex illustrations that attempt to capture the uncontrolled nature of their subject while still rendering an accurate likeness.
Publisher's Note
The illustrations are all arranged according to scientific classifications and families - with scientific descriptions of each.

I think I can now well understand why William Morris (Flowers in Art: William Morris - herbals, flowers and making patterns July 2007) was such a fan of herbals. I'm also trying to remember which other artists liked and collected herbals - and Monet and Mackintosh spring to mind but I can't find a reference to confirm.

All the books are now listed in the book modules relating to early flower drawings on my information site Botanical Art - Resources for Artists - along with a number of other books about herbals and early flower illustrations and antique botanical prints which are produced by Dover Publications and others for a very reasonable price.

Plus I have a new development in hand - more of this later...........

PS You can also read more about the Chelsea Flower Show - including its blog - on the special BBC Chelsea website


  1. Oooh this sounds like so much fun.

    Do you know the History of Gardening Museum next to Lambeth Palace? What a fantastic little place -- great resources, and great for sketching.

  2. That's another one like the Chelsea Physic Garden - very easy to get to and I've never been. But it's on my list for a visit in the near future!


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