Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Botanical prints by William Curtis

Early botanical prints are generally quite desirable both for collectors and those wishing to use them as decoration. They can be found uncolored, colored by hand, or printed in color, and in many different sizes, not to mention price ranges.

The prints found on the market generally range in date the sixteenth through the nineteenth century, with each period have its own typical style. Many love the boldness of the late nineteenth-century chromolithographs or the texture of the early nineteenth-century stipple prints, but my favorite botanicals are the engravings of the late eighteenth-century, especially those that are hand colored. Some of these can be fairly expensive, but the majority remain quite affordable. Some of the most reasonably priced, attractive and historically important of these prints are those done by William Curtis.

William Curtis (1746-1799) moved to London as a young man to become an apprentice to an apothecary, but his true love was botany and other natural history. He soon gave up his apprenticeship and took to a career as a natural scientist. His first work, which he produced at age 25, was Instructions for collecting and preserving insects; particularly moths and butterflies. In 1772, Curtis was appointed as Demonstrator of Botany to the Society of Apothecaries at the Chelsea Physic Garden and in 1779 Curtis established his own London Botanic Garden, where he cultivated about six thousand species of plants.

One of Curtis' particular interest were those plants growing within London. That interest led him, beginning in 1777, to work on a huge, multi-volume work, Flora Londinensis; or Plates and Descriptions of such Plants as Grow Wild in the Environs of London, intended to describe and illustrate every plant growing in London. This publication, which was completed in 1799 in six volumes, contained text and a folio engraving of each plant.

The Flora Londinensis was of high quality and very informative, and received excellent reviews. However, it was expensive for Curtis to produce, which meant it had a high price. Also, as it was a heavily scientific work focused on mostly humble plants growing along streets and in the fields of London, it had a somewhat limited market. Sales were not good, Curtis' costs were high, and after two volumes, he was debt-ridden.

In order to make some money, Curtis came up with the idea of a magazine to illustrate and describe the many attractive and exotic plants becoming available to gardeners in England. Thus was born, in 1787, his The Botanical Magazine; or Flower-Garden Displayed, a monthly publication with each issue containing a description and a hand-colored engraving of three plants.

As Curtis explained in the first issue, “The Botanical Magazine’ owes its commencement to the repeated solicitations of several ladies and gentlemen subscribers to the author’s botanic garden, who were frequently lamenting the want to work, which might enable them not to enquire a systematic knowledge of foreign plants growing in their gardens, but which might at the same time afford them the best information respecting their culture."

The Botanical Magazine, unlike the Flora Londinensis, was a huge commercial success. Its small size, bright flowers, and the fact that payments for each issue were quite modest, made it very popular. Curtis sold thousands of copies of each issue, the money helping him to continue work on his folio work: he is said to have remarked that each of his publications brought either “pudding or praise.”

Such was its success that Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, as it became known, became the longest running botanical magazine ever; despite a few hiatuses, it is still in publication by the Royal Botanic Gardens. The first thirty volumes used copper engravings, with later images being done by lithography and then later by photomechanical processes. Until the mid-twentieth century the prints were all hand colored.

All of the Botanical Magazine prints have a charm and attractiveness (not to mention accurate detail), but the earliest ones, those that are the engravings from the eighteenth century, are the most appealing. These prints are generally available at reasonable prices and make for great gifts and decoration, with their visual appeal and fascinating history. One of the interesting things about these prints is that they are numbered in sequence from the first print on and each is labeled with the month and year it was produced.

The larger prints from the Flora Londinensis generally do not have quite as much “petal power,” but they too are very attractive, historically interesting, and modestly priced. Curtis’ prints are a nice place to start for the beginning collector or anyone wanting some historical art for their walls.


  1. Why is it so difficult to obtain prints from post 1875 issues (where many N Z prints are featured) when you might expect more 'surviving' magazines?

    1. Interesting question. I do not think that it is because the issues are rare, but more that most of the issues and their prints are not that valuable, so i) dealers don't spend a lot of time seeking them out and ii) they also don't spend a lot of time putting them on the internet. For instance, there are lots and lots and lots of Punch and Judge prints out there, but you do not find many on line...

  2. It's August 2020 and my Wants List has not been shortened by very much. Early prints are a dime a dozen, in frequency offered for sale. Not 20th century ones.