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Collecting Books as Art: The Herbarium

While the worlds of art and cooking may seem disparate, they collide quite regularly, particularly when it comes to rare and antiquarian books. Perhaps one of the most delightful examples of this convergence is in the herbarium, which is often a work of art unto itself and can also illuminate the role of plants in medicine and cookery. 

A Brief History of Herbaria

Luca-Ghini

Luca Ghini

Herbaria were originally called hortus siccus or hortus mortus. French botanist Joseph Pitton de Tournefort was the first to substitute the term “herbarium” for hortus siccus. Luca Ghini, born in 1490, is credited with inventing the herbarium. He pressed plants between sheets of paper and glued them to cardboard. By 1527, Ghini was lecturing on medicinal plants at the University of Bologna. He taught his technique to his students, and it caught on. Soon, Ghini’s approach had been disseminated throughout Europe. Pupil Gherardo Cibo began his own herbarium around 1532, and the collection is still extant today. Both Lusitanus (1553) and William Turner (1569) mention Englishman John Falconer’s herbarium, so the method was popular all over Europe.

Herbaria made according to Ghini’s method were bound into books. Pages could not be removed or rearranged without damaging the specimen. This approach had its advantages: storing an individual volume was relatively easy, and samples could not be stolen. But its major drawback was that it could not be rearranged or emended to accommodate new knowledge–or even new samples. Thus, in 1751 Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus proposed a different approach in his Philosophia Botanica: place only one sample on each page, and place the sheets in a specially built cabinet with individual drawers. This way, samples could easily be taken out for closer examination or rearranged as scientists made new discoveries.

Anna_Atkins_algae_cyanotype

From Atkins’ ‘Photographs of British Algae’ca

Although most scientists and institutions adopted this procedure, the herbarium continued to remain popular among amateur botanists and collectors. In 1833, Asa Grey was still offering bound volumes of sedges and grasses for sale.  Building an herbarium was considered a respectable pursuit for women interested in science, and it became quite a popular pastime during the Victorian era. Seaweed, of all things, became a popular focus, and the first-ever book of photography is actually considered to be Anna Atkins’ Photographs of British Algae, which you can view courtesy of NYPL’s digital archives.

An Herbarium for the Fair

As Atkins’ guide illustrates, an herbarium need not contain only real specimens of plants. Books illustrated with photographs, etchings, or other forms of illustration are less delicate alternatives that are often just as beautiful as their counterparts. Regardless of medium, herbaria have become quite desirable not only as botanical references, but as art in their own right. For collectors interested in culinary history, herbaria elucidate the frequent intersections among botany, cooking, and medicine. 

Fassam_Herbarium_FairAn Herbarium for the Fair (1949) is certainly one of these. Written by Thomas Fassam, the volume was beautifully produced. Only 260 copies were made, with 250 numbered for sale. The title is engraved by Alfred Richard Lane; the etchings, engraved by David Strang. The illustrations were done by Betty Shaw-Lawrence, an accomplished artist in her own right. Shaw-Lawrence, a mostly self-taught artist, was widely known as a portrait painter. After World War II, she had multiple solo and group exhibitions in London, Rome, and New York City. She also did a number of book illustration projects, of which An Herbarium for the Fair is probably the best known. The book contains of Shaw-Lawrence’s etchings. The plates were destroyed after publication.

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This entry was posted on February 19, 2014 by in Food and Literature, History and tagged , , , , , , .
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