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Victorian Botanical Nature Printing

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Victorian Botanical Nature Printing

By Paula Legel
Associate Curator, Heritage Publications

Detail of \u003cem\u003ePolysyphonia parasitica\u003c/em\u003e from William Grosart Johnstone\u0027s \u003cem\u003eThe Nature-printed British Sea-weeds\u003c/em\u003e.

Detail of Polysyphonia parasitica from William Grosart Johnstone's The Nature-printed British Sea-weeds.

The Museum is fortunate to hold two botanical titles featuring nature printing, an unusual process popularized in England in the mid-nineteenth century by a young printer by the name of Henry Bradbury.

Nature printing has existed in some form or another since classical antiquity. The Museum holds an unusual example printed on tapa from Tahiti. The form of printing we are investigating was created in the early 1850s by Alois Auer, director of the Government Printing Office in Vienna.

The process involved placing the object to be reproduced between a steel plate and a lead plate and passing these through two rollers. High pressure pressed the object into the lead plate, revealing an extraordinary level of detail. Coloured ink was applied to the lead plate and a copy produced in a press. Several colours could be applied and all printed together from one pull of the press. The key to a successful imprint was the use of specimens easily flattened without losing definition or dimension. Ferns and some seaweeds were ideal.

Bradbury, a young printer from London, visited Vienna and studied the method with Auer. He then returned to the U.K., bringing his knowledge of the technique to the publishing company owned by his father, William Bradbury. In 1853, William refined and patented his own version, which he called phytoglyphy (and, later, autotypography). A protracted and very public row with Auer ensued as there was little evidence that the refinements to the technique noted in the patent had been applied.

Henry was an articulate proponent of nature printing, giving lectures and demonstrations in London and elsewhere in the U.K. Reviews in the Illustrated London News and Express at the time showed how enthusiastically this new progressive process was received, and encouraged sales for the subsequent publications.

\u003cem\u003eLastra Filix mas cristata\u003c/em\u003e and \u003cem\u003eL. Filix mas polydactyla\u003c/em\u003e, in \u003cem\u003eThe Ferns of Great Britain and Ireland\u003c/em\u003e (1855–1856), by Thomas Moore.

Lastra Filix mas cristata and L. Filix mas polydactyla, in The Ferns of Great Britain and Ireland (1855–1856), by Thomas Moore.

Bradbury’s first book was A Few leaves represented by ‘nature-printing’: showing the application of the art for the reproduction of botanical and other natural objects (1854). The first of the titles we hold, The Ferns of Great Britain and Ireland (1855-1856), by Thomas Moore, considered one of the finest illustrated publications on ferns, was initially published in 17 folios, with plates of nearly 60cm in height. While we don’t know how many folios were produced, given the laborious process, the run was probably limited. In 1857, a smaller edition in two volumes was published.

The process was very popular, in part due to the Victorian craze of Pteridomania or “fern madness,” a term coined by Charles Kingsley in his 1855 book Glaucus, or, The wonders of the shore. Ferns became one of the enduring motifs of Victorian decorative arts, appearing on everything from christening presents to gravestones and memorials.

Bradbury’s third (and last) title is The Nature-printed British Sea-weeds: a history accompanied by figures and dissections, of the algae of the British Isles (1859-1860), by William Grosart Johnstone. Another example of exquisite printing, this four-volume set is a delight. Many shades have been applied to illustrate the diverse colours of British seaweeds and, as with The Ferns of Great Britain and Ireland, the hyper-reality of the images almost fools the eye into believing the specimens are real.

These two titles are some of the principal examples of  this form of nature printing at that time. Bradbury's early death by suicide slowed interest in the process, and photography (and later, x-rays) superseded it altogether. However, the quality and workmanship involved in printing these magnificent plates has never been surpassed and they are still regarded as accurate scientific illustrations.

The museum also has an example of nature printing produced in New Zealand in the collection. Tipped into a copy of New Zealand Ferns by Herbert B. Dobbie previously owned by Johannes C. Andersen, at the point where there is a photo of the same, is a nature-printed image of a specimen of Hymenophyllum Demissum-Swartz, made in Wellington. Though the publication is not of the same high standard of Bradbury’s work, it is interesting to see that the process was in use in New Zealand in the early twentieth century.

Cite this article

Legel, Paula. Victorian Botanical Nature Printing. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 30 October 2019. Updated: 8 March 2021.

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