Curtis’s: The Longest Running Botanical Magazine

Stacy Stoldt —  November 2, 2017 — Leave a comment

During the Age of Botanical Exploration, there were no journals, workbooks, or even articles on newly discovered plants. As more and more tropical and foreign plants were brought back to Europe, there was an explosive interest in these plants, but no documentation on the growing culture or uses had been provided.

That is, not until (Curtis’s) The Botanical Magazine began publication in 1787. This exciting new publication contained three to four scientifically accurate hand-colored engravings and descriptions of each plant, including information about cultivation and growth habit.

Library Talk on Sunday, November 5, at 2 p.m.

Mrs. Hodgson’s Rhododendron (Rhododendron hogsonii)

ILLUSTRATION: Rhododendron hogsonii.

Discovered in Bhotan, Eastern Himalayas, 1832.
1866, Vol. 92, Plate 5552
Artist: Walter Hood Fitch (1817–72)

Curtis’s ran without competition until 1815, when one of the chief illustrators, Sydenham Edwards, left the magazine and began the Botanical Register in 1815, paving  the way for even more, although short-lived, botanical journals.

But Curtis’s Botanical Magazine holds the claim as the longest running botanical magazine. The Chicago Botanic Garden is celebrating that accomplishment with an exhibition, Curtis’s: The Longest Running Botanical Magazine, through January 21, 2018, in the Lenhardt Library. A free talk will take place at 2 p.m. November 5 in the Lenhardt Library. There will be an opportunity to view the first volume of The Botanical Magazine from 1787, as well as other volumes of Curtis that are not included in the exhibition.

About once every quarter, I receive a call from my colleague Christine Schmid, who is the Library Technical Services Librarian who manages serial subscription renewals here at the Lenhardt Library. That call always begins, with “Hi, Stace, Curtis is here.” I gleefully unearth myself from six tons of paper and reference questions and go and take a look. Each time, I am amazed at the production quality and the longevity of a journal that features plant portraits reproduced from watercolor originals by leading international botanical artists, highly defined photographs, and detailed articles that combine horticultural and botanical information, history, conservation, and economic uses of the plants described.

The Moutan, or Chinese Tree Peony (Paeonia Moutan)

ILLUSTRATION: Paeonia moutan

1809, Vol. 29 Plate 1154
Artist: Sydenham Edwards (1769–1819)

The Botanical Magazine, as it was called on its London debut in 1787, was published by William Curtis in response to a public demand for more information on all the new plants reaching the British Isles from ongoing botanical explorations. Curtis, the former apothecary demonstrator at the Chelsea Physic Garden and creator of the Flora Londinensis, earned his “bread and butter” as he referred to it, with the publication of the magazine. The magazine popularized and encouraged the cultivation of these newly discovered plants and influenced generations of gardeners and nurserymen on the way in which the plants could be maintained or propagated. 

The magazine was not only filled with the most scientifically accurate text on the plants, but each plant was also scientifically illustrated by master botanical illustrators. Featured in the exhibition are hand-colored engraving by Sydenham Edwards (1769–1819), Walter Hood Fitch (1817–72), John Nugent Fitch (1840–1927), and the first director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, William Jackson Hooker (1785–1865).

In addition to the exhibition and free Library Talk, the Lenhardt Library has a full run of Curtis’s Botanical Magazine. Issues are available for consultation upon request only. The magazine is now published for the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, by Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, United Kingdom.


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Stacy Stoldt

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Stacy Stoldt is Public Services Manager at the Lenhardt Library of the Chicago Botanic Garden. She loves to talk about—and show off—the library's rare book collection; researching and creating the exhibitions, and learning as much as she can about the books in the collection. She enjoys traveling (to vineyards and libraries), and is the proud owner of a Deluxe Nancy Pearl Librarian Action Figure.

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