A Spring Harvest of Horticultural Volumes

Sat, 05/19/2018 - 3:46pm -- pcrowley


Spring has sprung, and the flowers are flowering! Also I’ve got a bad case of polyptoton! In honor of the May flowers that are becoming so abundant, I offer for your perusal two recently acquired books on flowers that will be added to the Hamilton Collection here at the Redwood. The Dorrance H. Hamilton Book Collection, funded by money given by Dorrance H. Hamilton, comprises modern and rare volumes on floriculture, horticulture, and gardening. We continue to enrich the collection both through purchase and generous donations from long-time members. In our first exhibition of the year, we shined a spotlight on books donated to the Hamilton Collection. This blog pulls back the curtain on a couple of volumes acquired through purchase in the past months.

Published in 1768, the Hortus Kewensis catalogs the plant life to be found in what would soon be the Royal Gardens at Kew, which was incorporated in 1772. Prior to this, the area had been a horticulturally important site for some centuries alternating between being grounds on Royal or aristocratically-held land. The author, John Hill, was a man with tendrils in many fields, including botany, medicine, and geology, as well as being an author of farces and satire. But his calling was as a botanist. His magnum opus, The Vegetable System, was published from 1759-1775 and was the first articulation of the Linnaean system of classification in English. The Hortus bears the marks of this intellectual organization and is clearly an extension of Hills wider botanical research applied more narrowly to Kew specifically.

Our copy is the second edition, reset and printed just a year after the first edition. There’s no narrative or expository text in this volume. The closest one comes is the dedication to the Princess of Wales whose estates included Kew Gardens. The rest of the volume is a very terse, but extensive, scientific catalog and classification of the gardens horticultural contents. No quarter is given to English plant names. Latin names and extremely laconic descriptions of formal characteristics are the order of the day. The book is illustrated with twenty plates. One of these is a large fold-out, typeset hierarchy pf the classification. The rest are delicate and detailed etchings of nineteen of the plants.

These plates include the only direct provenance evidence. About half of the plates are annotated to include the English name of the plant depicted. It’s hard to say the date of the inscription, but it’s safe to say that it is either contemporary or from the very early-19th century. This book is interesting to us in no small part because it fits into the very vibrant botanical dialogue and trade that was going on between England and the American Colonies in the 18th century. American plants were all the rage in Europe in the 18th century particularly. It will be interesting to delve into this catalog and see whether Kew was cultivating American plantings in this period.

The second work, Flora’s Interpreter, trades science for sentimentality. Where Hill, the Enlightenment naturalist, is working to catalog species of flower and plant and to fit them into a scientific classification, Mrs. Sarah Josepha Hale brings the Victorian fixation with the social to flowers. First published in 1832, this volume is on the breaking wave of the flower language fad in America. There is a deep history of flower symbolism in the Western European tradition that ranges from the iconography of the Medieval church to Shakespeare’s poetical use of traditional flower associations; but the very regimented and carefully described language of flowers was brought to Europe, notably England and Sweden, from the Ottoman courts in the 18th century. Flower language applies set meanings to flowers and colors, allowing for semantic associations stable enough for unspoken communication, sometimes at a social level, but much more often at an interpersonal level between friends and lovers. While it first made its appearance in Europe in the 18th century, it rocketed into a social phenomenon in the Victorian period. In England the beginning of its popularity can be traced to the 1820s. In America it wasn’t until the 1830s that it caught on. But it quickly became a long-term fad.

Flora’s interpreter was published first in 1832. Our edition is from 1849, and benefits not only from added texts but also from the advent of chromolithographic reproduction. The primary text takes the scientific name and description for granted, affording them a quick mention at the beginning of each flower’s entry. The majority of the text of each entry is the establishment of the primary meaning or meanings of each bloom and a bouquet of excerpts of prose and poetry to support the interpretation.

The introduction of the volume is very interesting. The author lays out her intellectual ideals in creating the work, among them “to select and incorporate with our love of nature and flowers the choicest and the best specimens of American poetry.” But she also points to clear business reasons for releasing a new edition with additions. She posits that the new text--an extensive added calendar, index, and set of maxims--will be harder to pirate with minor changes “as some of [our imitators] already done to an extent which is very obvious.” The marks of provenance in this book help to reinforce a sense of domesticity and sentimentality above all: a gift inscription from a man to a woman in terms of sincere friendship and, tucked into the entries on Periwinkles, a bookmarker cut from a pink and white bichromatic ribbon.

As the trees continue to unfurl their leaves ahead of the Summer season in Newport, we hope the leaves of these volumes, new and green additions to the Redwood, afford you, the reader, some fleeting pleasure.