Penn Library

The Illustrated Book, 1780-1830: selected from the collection of Harris N. Hollin


Natural History

In the second half of the 18th century an intense wave of exploration stoked the fires of a popular scientific interest in the exotic natural world that was already being felt in landscape gardening. The travels of Captain Cook suggested the connection between scientific discovery and artistic achievement, reflected in the appearance of the first comprehensive illustrated flora books as well as some of the finest ornithological and zoological books. That interest in the natural world was accompanied by lushly illustrated depictions owed much to the industrial and agricultural revolutions in Britain, which enabled the sale, and therefore publication, of very attractive and costly books. In France, Napoleon's lavish patronage of the sciences had more to do with the production of impressive illustrated natural history. But there too, by the mid-1820s, the nascent bourgeoisie was creating demand for expensive books.

With Filices Britannicae (1795), James Bolton, a Yorkshire naturalist and painter, produced one of the earliest comprehensive illustrated flora books. Thomas Martyn's Thirty-eight Plates (1788) sought to illustrate the Linnean system of classification that was all the vogue of the time. With text in English and French, Peter Brown's Nouvelles illustrations de zoologie (London, 1776) provided English and French audiences with a introduction to zoology. Across the English Channel, the Amsterdam publisher J. C. Sepp employed the university professor and well-regarded scientist J. Kops in the execution of Flora Batava (1800). Kops was neither a painter nor an engraver, but his expertise lent accuracy to the endeavor that other illustrated books sometimes lacked. Edward Donovan was both painter and engraver of comprehensive treatments of insects and birds, such as The Natural History of British Insects (1791-1801) and The Natural History of British Birds (1795). His works were regarded as less accurate than others, but widely admired for their striking and beautiful plates. William Lewin provided another lavish treatment of British birds, which was aided by the larger format of his The Birds of Great Britain (1795). The French illustrator R. P. Lesson, employed just the opposite approach. He felt that the subjects of Oiseaux-mouches (1830), hummingbirds, were best rendered in a smaller format. Though small, the book was widely acclaimed for the accuracy of its illustrations. In the same year he also published Centurie zoologique.

By the 1830s, the separation and specialization of the sciences was well underway. Books like Richard Bradley's A Philosophical Account of the Works of Nature (1721), which sought to "set forth the several gradations remarkable in the mineral, vegetable, and animal parts of the Creation," and which would have been directed both at learned and general audiences, became rarer. Books with this dual readership were replaced by learned works with clear but not always especially beautiful illustrations, more popular works with illustrations and text of varying quality and accuracy, and livres deluxes of great size and splendor that were, consequently, beyond the means of most readers, whether men of science or not. But even the color plate books intended for more popular audiences and more practical uses offer the modern reader a testament to the illustrator's craft. The 16th century astrologer and physician Nicholas Culpepper's The Complete Herbal (1835) became a standard medical resource for the English family. The addition in the late 18th century of large numbers of color plate illustrations enhanced the attractiveness of the book and, more than likely, aided in the effective implementation of its prescriptions.

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