Since the ancient world, we as humans have felt compelled to explore and document our natural surroundings. Over the course of a mere few centuries, revolution after revolution in printmaking produced botanical prints in a variety of forms. Not only do antique botanicals represent early scientific progress, but they also offer a stunning form of wall art.
We are always aware of our origins as hunter-gatherers. We once depended on our knowledge of the natural world to survive, and this has never truly dissipated. The earliest and most primitive forms of botanical prints date to the ancient world. From then until well into the Middle Ages, nature printing was invaluable for recording the medicinal value of different plants. Might this herb cure a fever, or serve as a death sentence?
This utilitarian purpose gave rise to nature printing. This simple practice uses the surface of a natural object, such as a leaf, to produce a print impression. Leonardo Da Vinci’s Codice Atlantico is well-known for his singular print of a sage leaf, along with instructions for nature printing. All that was required for this method was the beauty and detail presented by the natural world itself, an inky substance, and a receiving surface.
It wasn’t long before nature printing became entwined with evolving colonialism. As empires expanded and expeditions were sent further and further afield, knowledge of new species grew rapidly. In one instance, botanical printing was even harnessed to create paper money societies in American colonies.
In 1723, an ambitious 17-year-old boy arrived in Philadelphia to seek a career in printing. Benjamin Franklin was dissatisfied with the financial chaos he found in the city. Shrinking metal coinage was putting a halt to Philadelphia's economy. Franklin realised that this physical payment method could be replaced by little more than a promise. Amazingly, the founding father’s experiment worked. He circulated paper money throughout various states with great success. But paper money presented one major issue- counterfeiting.
Franklin was good friends with the talented botanical artist Jacob Breitnall. He was impressed by Breitnall’s very detailed drawings of leaves and flowers. The two worked out that, by transferring leaf images onto banknotes, each would have its own unique signature. And so, using different plants, Franklin transferred the images onto his paper money using the old technique of rolling ink onto a leaf and pressing the surface onto the banknotes.
The experiment worked, and the four colonies that used nature printed notes experienced far less counterfeiting than those which did not. In 1775, the Continental Congress authorised the creation of a new national currency.
Electrotyping: a revolution in nature printing
Contributions to nature printing came from far and wide, and perhaps the most seismic development occurred in Austria. Alois Auer became Director of the Austrian National Printing Office in 1841, and under his leadership, it became a centre of excellence in nature printing.
Auer kept the essential method of making an impression in a soft material. He first experimented with gutta-percha, a gum-like tree sap. His innovation was using electrotyping to create a duplicate copper printing plate and make many more copies of the print.
Electrotyping was a revolutionary technology at the time, as although it was quite laborious it meant that the number of copies that could be produced was infinite. When the quality of one copper printing plate started to deteriorate, a new one could be made.
Gutta-percha was still quite a messy material for creating the impression, like soft lead before it. Auer adapted the process further by using a rolling press in place of the gum. This method, whereby the specimen passes through plates of polished lead and steel, makes a cleaner impression to take an electrotyped copy from.
This new method was used extensively for large-scale botanical projects. Auer patented the process, but it wouldn’t go unrivalled…
The age-old case of the student becomes the master. Henry Bradbury, the son of an established British printer, was curious about developments over in Austria. He asked Auer if he could visit and learn about this new printmaking process. Auer showed Bradbury how electrotyping worked, perhaps in slightly too much detail, and the student mastered the technique.
Back in England, Bradbury took out his own patent on what he claimed to be a new and improved technique. Naturally, Auer argued it was essentially the same and a great deal of bad blood developed between the two.
In the midst of this dispute, Bradbury produced several stellar works- most notably The Ferns of Great Britain and Ireland. This folio, edited by Thomas Moore, demonstrates the suitability of Bradbury’s method for reproducing ferns- an ever-popular topic for botanical prints. Regardless of who true credit is due to, both Alois Auer and Henry Bradbury made enormous contributions to the field.
Lots of botanicals in our collection come from folios of engravings. Original, highly detailed drawings were engraved using copper plates and hand-coloured afterwards. Surviving prints made this way date back as far as the early 17th Century. Engravings turned botanicals into a true art form, and these prints are some of the most stunning on the market.
Among the most collectible antique botanical illustrations are those of Basilius Besler. Besler was an eminent horticulturalist and botanist, who was personally responsible for the gardens of Bishop Johann Conrad in Eichstätt, Germany. Inspired by these majestic gardens, Besler commissioned a team of skilled artists and engravers to document the extensive plant life. The end result was his Hortus Eystettensis, 'the garden at Eichstätt.' This folio, published in Nuremberg in 1613, represents the earliest large botanical compendium.
The work took over sixteen years to complete and depicts over 1000 different plants. It covered everything from European flowers to the newly discovered tobacco plant. Besler first published the work in black-and-white, but some ‘special editions’ were hand-coloured by Georg Mack. Among the lucky later owners of these rare coloured examples was George III.
Surviving prints from Besler’s Hortus Eystettensis demonstrate why botanical printing was about far more than classification. The drawings are incredibly accurate and include the root delineations of each plant, and they also have great beauty and character. Hortus Eystettensis prints have a wonderful liveliness that reflects true passion on the behalf of the patron and artists.
Despite being better informed than their counterparts in the Middle Ages, there was still a great thirst for medicinal knowledge in the 18th Century. A young woman called Elizabeth Blackwell faced an uncertain future as her husband spent two years in debtors prison. She undertook a considerable challenge, looking to provide the first definitive handbook for medicinal plants. The first volume of A Curious Herbal was published in 1738 and included over 500 plates. Elizabeth engraved her drawings on copper plates, and then hand-coloured the works afterwards. Elizabeth turned to botanicals out of financial desperation, but her pain-staking care is a common trait in so many botanical artists. Hence why the results are so breath-taking.
Johann Wilhelm Weinmann
Another vast collection of botanical engravings came from Johann Wilhelm Weinmann. Weinmann was a renowned apothecary in Regensburg and published his Pytanthoza Iconographia in 1737. The work includes no less than 1025 plates, depicting several thousand plant specimens in total. Detailed original paintings act as a source for engraving each plate. This monumental folio represents a near-complete record of all flowers, fruits, and vegetables cultivated in the early 18th Century. The colour revolution in botanical art happened around 1700, and Pytanthoza Iconographia represents the earliest example of multi-colour printing from a single plate. Weinmann's greatest asset was the young Georg Ehret, who was a major contributor to the work. Ehret used a new printing method, mezzotint, to produce lively and detailed images that he finished with hand-colouring. Ehret would eventually abandon the commission due to the rather measly payment he received.
Other botanical printing methods
We often underestimate how botanical studies were not just a matter for scientific gain, but also an absorbing hobby for many. During the late 19th Century, many young women spent long periods of time documenting plants. Seaweed and ferns were always major topics of interest.
In the mid 19th Century, a young Anna Atkins pioneered a new sort of printing - cyanotype - which made use of photo technology. Through her connections with the prolific Royal Society, she learned of a new photographic process under development- sun-printing. Sun-printing used acid, water, and sunlight, to create a print impression. This method, otherwise known as blue-printing, was particularly useful in architectural and engineering contexts.
However, Anna saw an opportunity to use sun-printing to create botanicals. Over the course of the 1840s and 50s, she produced two key works: British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, and Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Flowering Plants and Ferns. These were pivotal works and the first likely represents the earliest publication of any form of photography. Anna's beautiful prints demonstrated the scientific and aesthetic power of this method.
At the end of the 18th Century, the invention of lithography marked a seismic advance in printmaking. Lithographs rely on the basic premise that grease and water do not mix. It was actually the Bavarian playwright, Alois Senefelder, who stumbled across this simple concept. Senefelder found it difficult to reproduce his plays efficiently, so he experimented with different printing techniques. He hit the jackpot when he tried writing the play out in greasy ink and then printing it on a limestone surface.
Lithography took off in the 19th Century, presenting lots of advantages over previous methods. Because of the use of stone or another grained surface, it was possible to achieve far more variation in tone and texture. It also improved colour-printing, where one applies different colours to different stones and overprints them onto the same sheet.
Print-makers soon recognised the value of lithography for creating botanicals and it was particularly significant for colour differentiation. Whether the prints are originally black-and-white and later hand-coloured, or chromolithographs (printed in multi-colour), these results are vibrant, detailed and striking.
We have seen botanical printing evolve from a utilitarian means to an end to a powerful academic resource. Not only do these prints represent a long history of scientific discovery, but they also have immense decorative power. You can hardly escape a wall of prints whilst flicking through an interiors magazine. Why are botanicals and other nature prints in particular so appealing?
We often talk about foliage and bringing the outside in, but this doesn’t always have to be literal. Fascinating botanical prints bring a sense of the natural world into our interiors, and prints will certainly last longer than a fresh bouquet! The magic of botanicals lies in the blending of art and science.
The styling opportunities for a set of prints are endless. Whether you have a full set of ferns or just a couple of floral engravings, botanicals are a wonderful decorative accent. Choose prints with subjects that appeal to you and a story that intrigues you.
The fundamental rule of collecting prints is to source ones you will enjoy looking at every day and to put them where you will see them the most. Create a staircase gallery wall you will walk past daily, or cluster them together at the end of a hallway. A larger set of framed prints is particularly useful when a room lacks an obvious focal point, such as a fireplace or a big window. Above a bed, a console, or a chest, colourful prints provide height and cohesion in a room.
The Lorfords collection
For centuries, botanical prints have appealed to physicians, scientists and gardeners alike. Those who contributed to the art, whether colonial explorers or pioneering women in science, have shaped its long and rich history.
Today, these studies of nature offer an important piece of history and an inspiring form of decoration. Prints from significant early botanical works are hard to come by, and we are lucky to have some special examples here at Lorfords. From vivacious Basilius Besler engravings to Henry Bradbury's revolutionary ferns, we are always excited by the botanical prints coming through our doors.
Looking at the prints themselves is by far the best way to understand the history of botanical illustration. You can browse our current collection of botanical prints here, and all prints and engravings here. Our lookbook, 'Where science meets art,' offers all the inspiration you could need for decorating with prints.