ASC Rewind: Curtis’s Botanical Magazine

This series revisits our Book of the Month archive to highlight some of our favourite articles and explore the ASC collections they describe with new eyes.

This article was originally published in October 2004 by Julie Gardham and the full article can still be found on our website in the Book of the Month archive.

As we head into Spring, and during a time when the restorative power of plants, gardens and nature in general has never felt more important, it feels appropriate to go back and explore a set of bewitching journals of plant life, Curtis’s Botanical Magazine. A full set of volumes from 1794-1988 can be found at Archives and Special Collections.

Plate 1 (Vol. 1, 1787): Iris Persica (Perisan Iris)

The journal was founded simply as the ‘Botanical Magazine’ by William Curtis in 1794, an apothecary-turned-botanist renowned for his writing and teachings on plants. Curtis, who had already published on plant life in and around London, identified the need for authoritative work on the numerous ‘new’ plants being identified abroad that British gardening enthusiasts were attempting to grow at home. The journal was an instant success, with the first volume selling around 3000 copies.

A close up of text on a white background

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Title-page and frontispiece of Vol. 1 (1787)

Curtis’s is the oldest periodical in existence featuring coloured plates. These plates, which were all coloured by hand, are the crowning jewels of the journals, the result of hours of work of countless flower artists. The images in these journals were drawn from close observation of real specimen. Then, using these initial drawings, copper etchings were produced which were then finally hand painted with watercolours. This technique was laborious and often monotonous, but the effort was worth it: after more than 200 years, even the earliest volumes have retained their vibrant colour. Incredibly, all plates in the magazine were hand coloured until 1948, when a shortage of colourists finally forced the magazine to transition to photography.

A close up of a flower

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Detail of plate 4435 (Vol. 75, 1849)

As well as offering dazzling examples of the visual representations of plants, these journals also allow us to glean how plant life has been codified and understood through text. Under Curtis’ editorship the accompanying textual description to each plate was fairly concise, consisting of the plant’s name, its place in the Linnaean System of classification, generic and specific diagnoses, alternative names, the country of origin, the time of flowering, and notes on cultivation. The ‘English’ names cited were usually simply translations of the scientific name in Latin and were not always accurate – some plants have been misidentified. Elsewhere, we can see archaic names for plants that were once exotic, but are now firmly  part of the British landscape, such as Helleborus hyemalis (Winter Hellebore or Aconite), which is today known as Eranthis hyemalis.

A picture containing table, water, sitting, white

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Plate 3 (Vol. 1, 1787): Helleborus Hyemalis (Winter Hellebore or Aconite)

After Curtis’ death in 1799, his friend John Sims became editor and renamed the publication ‘Curtis’s Botanical Magazine’. The journal was later edited by William Jackson Hooker (1785-1865), a well-established expert in more exotic plant life who was the Professor of Botany at the University of Glasgow and later Director of Kew. Consequently, the journal was edited by several successive Kew Directors, including Joseph Hooker and Sir William Thiselton-Dyer. Under these various editors, the magazine had varying levels of success, but it has ultimately endured, and, except for a brief spell as The Kew Magazine from 1984-1995, Curtis’s Botanical Magazine can still be read today.

A close up of some flowers

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Plate 3383 (Vol. 62, 1835): Justicia Carnea (Flesh-coloured Justicia)

During the course of its 200-year history, the magazine has become a key reference source for botanists and gardeners everywhere, spreading cutting edge knowledge on plants trough accurate coloured plates and detailed descriptions. It’s a testament to our enduring fascination with the power of floral life, and the passion and dedication of study it provokes. It’s also a reminder to, when we can, stop and enjoy the beauty that emerges around us each year.

Categories: Archives and Special Collections

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