Archives For Rare Books

Clicking Through Time

Undercover Science

Julianne Beck —  October 10, 2014 — Leave a comment

In 1860s New Hampshire, botanical artist Ellen Robbins perched before her canvas, creating wildly popular watercolors of fall leaves. Books of her paintings sold well, landing in the hands of high society members such as fellow artist Gertrude Graves, a cousin of poet Emily Dickinson. Graves presented her copy of one such volume, Autumnal Leaves, to the Massachusetts Horticultural Society in 1923, where it remained until being acquired by the Chicago Botanic Garden in 2002. Today, the historic, storied volume is accessible to us all via a visually crisp, easily navigated online library.

ILLUSTRATION: autumnal leaves.

Selection from Autumnal Leaves by Ellen Robbins

Autumnal Leaves is one of the historic books, postcards, and similar materials digitized and conserved by the Garden in recent years and now accessible via the Internet.

“It just opens up the opportunities for more people to see the wonderful pieces that we have,” said Leora Siegel, director of the Garden’s Lenhardt Library, which was established by the Woman’s Board of the Chicago Horticultural Society in 1951.

The Lenhardt Library’s impressive collection includes materials dating from 1483 to 1917, which are now available online to an expanded audience.

“In this age of e-books, these primary resources are something different. They are something really important to our civilization and culture,” said Siegel, who is delighted to help the public, scientists, historians, and artists from around the world access the remarkable materials.

PHOTO: Leora Siegel.

Leora Siegel directs the Garden libraries.

Publications originating in North America are predominant in the collection. Western European books that once resided in the private family libraries of dukes and earls are also included. In some cases, bookplates were traced back to their original owners.

“They were in private libraries and only the family could read them, and now they are on the web and anyone can get to them,” remarked Siegel. The international component of the digitized collection also includes ikebana illustrations from Japan.

These materials were part of a collection of some 2,000 rare books and 2,000 historic periodical titles collected by the Massachusetts Horticultural Society of Boston before being purchased by the Garden in 2002. Since that time, grants including a $172,000 award from the National Endowment for the Humanities in 2011, allowed the Garden to digitize 45 of the books that have traveled time and distance to reach us today.

What did South America’s tropical vegetation look like to illustrator Baron Alexander von Humboldt in the 1850s? How was the Horticultural Building portrayed in Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition?

The answers can be found in the preserved volumes and vintage postcards accessible via the Illinois Digital Archives and the Garden’s new digitized illustrations website, launched in September.

Front of advertising card showing the Horticultural Building at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, with inset of company logo.

Front of advertising card showing the Horticultural Building at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, with inset of company logo.

Front of postcard showing a rowboat on a lake in front of the Horticultural Building at the World's Fair grounds in Chicago, 1934.

Front of postcard showing a rowboat on a lake in front of the Horticultural Building at the World’s Fair grounds in Chicago, 1934.

The new site houses illustrations from a significant number of titles and interpretive notes, and it is continuously updated with material. From books on grafting plants to postcards from flower shows, there is much to discover with cultural and scientific relevance.

ILLUSTRATION: Selection from Water-color Sketched of Plants of North America 1888 to 1910.

Selection from Water-color Sketches of Plants of North America 1888 to 1910 by Helen Sharp, Volume 08

“The botanical illustrations come close to our herbarium specimens in many cases because you really see the roots and the life cycle of the plant,” noted Siegel.

The majority of materials were digitized offsite by the premier art conservation center in the United States, the Northeast Document Conservation Center. When the processed files arrive at the Garden, metadata is added by Garden librarian Christine Schmidt. She then adds the files to a software program that allows them to be accessed through either website. A volunteer photographer also contributes to the files. In the most recent set of 45 digitized volumes, 18 are currently being processed and prepared for the site.

While the rare books are still available by appointment to those who can make it into the library, many of the books are delicate and will benefit from an increased percentage of online viewing into the future.

ILLUSTRATION: Bookplate from "Physiognomy of Tropical Vegetation in South America"

Selection from Physiognomy of Tropical Vegetation in South America: a series of views illustrating the primeval forests on the river Magdalena, and in the Andes of New Grenada

Allowing access to these materials online has yielded many rewards for those who made it possible, from contributing to research around the world to the reproduction of selected images in new book publications, which is done with special permission from the Lenhardt Library.

“People are really blown away,” according to Siegel. Garden exhibitions have benefited from the collection as well, such as the winter Orchid Show exhibition, which was enhanced by complimentary full-text access to some of the rare books from the online portal.

Next, Siegel hopes to digitize the Garden’s collection of an estimated 20,000 pages of manuscripts of scientists’ field notes.

“We have some unique one-of-a-kind manuscripts that no one else has,” she said. “This is just the start.”

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

As I compiled the latest rare book exhibition at the Lenhardt Library, I got to know several fascinating women from the past. They were among the first women to be recognized as botanical illustrators, and their work opened doors for generations of women to follow. The exhibition, Feminine Perspective: Women Artists and Illustrators, running through November 10, traces the development of women in the field of botanical illustration from at-home hobbyists to professional artists who were published under their own names, with their works represented in the respectable journals, displayed in galleries and art shows, and accepted professionally.

ILLUSTRATION: Rigid-leaved Gorteria (Gorteria rigens).

Rigid-leaved gorteria (Gorteria rigens) by Henrietta Moriarty from the Rare Book Collection of the Lenhardt Library of the Chicago Botanic Garden.

For Henrietta Moriarty who published in 1807 London, botany was a moral dilemma. The renowned botanical theory of plant classification by Carl Linnaeus discusses plant reproduction and reproductive plant parts; the material was decidedly not appropriate for a proper Victorian woman and outright dangerous for a young girl. Moriarty solves this moral dilemma by writing and illustrating her own book, Fifty Plates of Green-House Plants, Drawn and Coloured from Nature, with concise descriptions and rules for their culture. Intended for the improvement of young ladies in the art of drawing, second edition, 1807.

Her 50 botanical illustrations are each hand-colored and focused on the beautiful flower with a botanical description but lack any discussion or representation of plant reproductive processes. Moriarty, a widow with children, needed to support her family and found writing and illustrating a botany book to be productive. She presold 180 copies by subscription. View each page of this lovely book online at the Illinois Digital Archives.

ILLUSTRATION: Italian pimpernel (Anagallis monellis).

Italian pimpernel (Anagallis monellis) by Henrietta Moriarty from the Rare Book Collection of the Lenhardt Library of the Chicago Botanic Garden

To hear more stories on the personal circumstances and the success of women in botanical illustration, come into the library! We’d love to share more about these illustrators and more:

Henriette Antoinette Vincent (1786 – 1830)
Ellen Robbins (1828 – 1905)
Lady Harriet Ann Thiselton-Dyer (1854 – 1945)

For a schedule of upcoming exhibitions and library talks, click here.


©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

PHOTO: hand-colored copper engraving.

Hand-colored copper engraving from Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium

The Lenhardt Library hosts remarkable exhibitions throughout the year. These exhibitions highlight parts of the collection that visitors might not otherwise see, and the exhibitions are among the Garden’s best-loved secrets! Stacy Stoldt, public services manager of the Lenhardt Library, curated the current exhibition, Butterflies in Print: Lepidoptera Defined, open now through August 18.

By far, the highlight is Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium (Metamorphosis of Surinam Insects) by Maria Sibylla Merian, published in 1719 in Amsterdam. This volume is on loan from the Owen H. Wangensteen Historical Library of Biology and Medicine, Bio-Medical Libraries, University of Minnesota.

 

PHOTO: illustration by Maria Sibylla Merian

An illustrated panel by Maria Sibylla Merian

See Butterflies in Print: Lepidoptera Defined at the Lenhardt Library through August 18, 2013.

PHOTO: Anna Maria Sibylla Merian from the 500 DM Banknote.

Maria Sibylla Merian, from the 500 deutsche mark bank note

Maria Sibylla Merian (1647–1717) was a fascinating woman, artist, and naturalist. While she was known for her watercolor paintings of flowers and insects, embroidery patterns, and copper engravings, she is also credited with being the founder of German entomology. At age 13 she began studying the metamorphoses of silkworms and butterflies. After five years of intense study, Merian found that adult insects actually lay eggs, disproving the earlier theory that caterpillars were born out of spontaneous generation.

Divorced in 1699, she traveled with her daughter Dorothea to the Dutch Colony of Surinam (now known as Suriname) that same year to continue her entomological work and art. Her spectacular artistic abilities and scientifically accurate representations make Metamorphosis of Surinam Insects a monumental tome. Carl Linnaeus consulted Merian’s illustrations in the course of his taxonomic work in the eighteenth century. Nine species of butterflies, six plants, and two beetles were named for her. She is still a well-known historic figure today and is represented on the 500 deutsche mark bank note and a German postage stamp; she was the subject of Google’s Doodle of the day on April 2, 2013, celebrating her 366th birthday.

Butterflies in Print was designed to complement the Butterflies & Blooms exhibition that showcases native and tropical live butterflies; Maria may have even seen some of these species in Suriname 300 years ago!

Want to know more about our rare books? Read Stories from the Rare Book Collection, monthly highlights from our collection written by curator Ed Valauskas.


©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org