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For the “use of Ladies, Gentlemen and Gardeners”: Curtis’s Botanical Magazine

Updated: Mar 31, 2023

'Iris Persica (the Persian Iris)' by James Sowerby. Plate 1 from the first issue of 'The Botanical Magazine or Flower-Garden Displayed'

If you like beautiful botanic plates, you’re in for a treat if you take a look at copies of Curtis’s Botanical Magazine from the last couple of hundred years – some of which are available on-line (via the Biodiversity Heritage Library). The celebrated magazine was intended, as the title page announced, “for the Use of such Ladies, Gentlemen and Gardeners as wish to become scientifically acquainted with the Plants they cultivate”. The magazine’s first issue appeared on 1st February, 1787 in a small octavo format, priced at one shilling. It was an immediate success – with every issue, containing three coloured plates, achieving a circulation of around 3,000. The image below shows the front cover of the very first issue, promising its readers information on the latest “ornamental foreign plants” for gardens, greenhouses and stoves “accurately represented in their natural colours”.

The Botanical Register or Flower-Garden Displayed, as it was first titled, was begun by William Curtis – it being renamed Curtis’s Botanical Magazine after his death. Originally an apothecary before turning his attention to botany and natural history, Curtis took up a position at the Chelsea Physic Garden and later established his own botanic garden in London in 1779.

William Curtis (1746-1799)

After the financial failure of his six volume Flora Londinensis (published between 1777-1798), Curtis saw a gap in the market for a work which would, as he wrote in The Botanical Register’s first issue, enable horticulturists and gardeners to “acquire a systematic knowledge of the Foreign Plants growing in their gardens” and, importantly, “afford them the best information respecting their culture”.

With the burgeoning interest in newly introduced ornamental exotic plants and flowers, the choice of plants in the magazine was usually influenced by its readers’ desire for the uncommon and the new, and Curtis ensured that the plates were “always from the living plant and coloured as near to nature as the imperfection of colouring will admit”. The plates were coloured by hand, using watercolours, and the magazine employed a succession of talented artists/illustrators, the first being James Sowerby, whose beautiful Iris Persica (the Persian Iris) was Plate 1 in the first issue.

'Imantophyllum miniatum', Plate 4783 by Walter Hood Fitch, Curtis's Botanical Magazine, May 1854

Curtis, editor between 1787 and 1800, was followed by his friend John Sims, 1801 to 1807, and then William Hooker who, in 1826, brought in the artist Walter Hood Fitch who became the magazine’s principal artist for some 40 years. Fitch is probably the magazine’s most famous illustrator publishing nearly 10,000 drawings, and described by Joseph Hooker (who followed his father as editor, as well as Director of Kew) as an “incomparable botanical artist”.

The magazine quickly established itself as the premier journal for early botanical illustration, with the artists carefully trained to produce illustrations of scientific value. The use of close-up details of the plants, such as roots and seeds, also gave the magazine practical appeal although, with over 30 different colourists (before the advent of later machine colouring), there were often varying results in the colours produced. The horticultural press, with several titles appearing from the 1840s, also publicized the magazine – The Gardeners’ Chronicle often alerting its readers to newly introduced plants, collected by plant-hunters and nurseries, appearing in the pages of the latest edition.

Harriet-Anne Hooker Thiselton-Dyer (1854-1945)

Much has been written about Fitch, but women artists also played an important role in the success of the magazine. And once I started researching this post, I was intrigued by two important women in its history - Harriet-Anne Hooker Thiselton-Dyer and Matilda Smith. Both were related to Joseph Hooker, but were no less credible artists for that, and I even wondered whether to change the title of this post to reflect their significance. However, I make no apology for writing more fully about these two women.

Following a dispute with Joseph Hooker, Fitch resigned - and it was Hooker’s daughter, Harriet, who stepped in - and, in the opinion of some authors, actually saved the magazine from closure as no other artists were immediately available. Harriet was married to the botanist William Thiselton-Dyer, Assistant Director at Kew for some 30 years, and who later succeeded Joseph Hooker as Director after his retirement. During the period 1878-1880, Harriet produced some 100 illustrations helping to keep the magazine viable until the next principal artist, Matilda Smith, took over as lead illustrator.

Harriet belonged to a generation of English women who were able to transform their interest in botany into a professional career. She had studied illustration with Fitch, so was more than capable of taking up the task. Indeed, Harriet would later paint some 550 copies of Brazilian botanist Joao Barbosa Rodriques’s botanically important orchid paintings. Unfortunately, Rodriques's original paintings disappeared after his death so Harriet’s copies provide a unique resource of his work. These copies are still housed at Kew. Harriet was also known as a talented gardener, and developed a reputation for 'green-fingers' at Kew, often being able to grow and nurture difficult plants successfully that the Kew gardening staff, and others, had been unable to do.

Harriet's husband retired from Kew in 1905, and they moved out of London. After his death, she moved to Devon and created a garden there which has been researched by the Devon Gardens Trust. They write that Harriet probably developed this garden from plants largely from Kew and elsewhere - friends regularly sending her parcels of plants, cuttings and seeds.

Below: Lilium cordifolium, Plate 6337 by Harriet-Anne Hooker Thiselton-Dyer, Curtis's Botanical Magazine, January 1878

Curtis's next important woman is Matilda Smith, whose interests in botany and botanical art were fostered by Joseph Hooker, her second cousin (and Harriet's father). Smith much admired the work of Walter Hood Fitch when he was the lead artist at Curtis's, and she studied as an illustrator at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Curtis's first published one of her drawings in 1878. After joining the magazine, Matilda worked alongside Harriet until, by 1887, she was almost its sole illustrator. By 1898, she was appointed the magazine's official artist producing more than 2,300 plates between 1878 and 1923.

Matilda Smith (1854-1926)

Matilda also produced 1,500 plates for Icones Plantarum, a vast survey of Kew's plants edited by Hooker, and her exceptional contribution saw her acknowledged as Kew’s first official Botanic Artist. Matilda's work for both Kew and Curtis's was certainly impressive but, as a woman, some authors consider she received little recognition for it during her own lifetime. I've also read that by the Victorian era, and even into the 20th century, botany and botanical art became progressively devalued as women entered the field professionally (by some male art critics), but other authors valued her exceptional artistic contribution.

However, Matilda's contribution was certainly appreciated by Kew. The 1916 volume of the Kew Guild Journal is dedicated to Matilda (on the occasion of her being announced as President-elect of the Guild) and describes “the productions of her skilful and prolific pencil” as being “known and praised wherever botany is studied and horticulture practised”. The dedication also mentions her work on the Icones Plantarum. Beginning with Plate 1354, by 1916 she had reached number 3075 “the excellence” of which “with full floral analyses” is generally acknowledged and presents a permanent record of her particular skill “in re-animating dried, flattened specimens, often of an imperfect character.”

'Lilium henryi', Plate 7177 by Matilda Smith, Curtis's Botanical Magazine, June 1891

The Kew Guild Journal also says that examples of her “artistic work” could be found in “all the leading herbaria of the world” and in the publications of “nearly all the leading Botanical Societies of the Empire and of some foreign countries”. She was also the first person to depict New Zealand flora in depth, when she illustrated Cheeseman's Illustrations of the New Zealand Flora, published in 1914, with beautiful, delicate drawings - one of which can be seen below.

Below: 'Olearia insignis', Plate LXXXV by Matilda Smith, Cheeseman's 'Illustrations of the New Zealand Flora', 1916

Unfortunately, the 19th century saw Curtis's Botanical Magazine plagued by economic difficulties. During John Sims’ time, increases in the cost of paper led to the price of each issue rising to 3s 6d which led to circulation dropping below 1,000. By 1848, sales had dropped further to only 300 copies per month. Successive editors also quarrelled with the publishers over the standard of the expensive hand-coloured plates, while unauthorised copying of plates was another problem. However, despite such difficulties, throughout most of the Victorian era the magazine managed to appear monthly, with each volume containing sixty hand-coloured plant portraits, usually of newly introduced plants.

By the first world war, Curtis's had shrunk to a quarterly with a print run of only 400 and by 1921 it was on the verge of collapse with a threatened takeover by the Smithsonian in the US. However, this threat seems to have spurred the UK horticultural institutions into action and the magazine was saved when H J Elwes (and others) bought the copyright for £250. According to Brent Elliott, in his book The Royal Horticultural Society: A History, this purchase included over a quarter million uncoloured plates, 30,000 coloured plates, patterns for colouring, and a stock of bound volumes. Elliott also charts the magazine’s turbulent years after the second world war until the 1980s, when it finally became an official Kew publication – changing its name to The Kew Magazine in 1984, but reverting to Curtis’s Botanical Magazine in 1995.

Despite its problems, throughout the 20th century and into the 21st, the magazine continued to employ the finest flower painters and illustrators for its plates, showcasing the best in botanical illustration through its coloured images.

Today, the Kew website describes Curtis’s as “a long-established academic journal that provides an international forum for botanists and horticulturists, plant ecologists and those with a special interest in botanical illustration”. Each four-part volume contains 24 plant portraits “reproduced from watercolour originals by leading international botanical artists. Articles are detailed but accessible, they combine horticultural and botanical information, history, conservation and economic uses of the plants described.”

If you have a few minutes to spare, I’d recommend you taking a look at Curtis’s beautiful plant portraits. Issues to 1920 are available on-line and provide an indispensable reference source for botanists and gardeners.

However, if you want something more up-to-date, you can follow one of Kew's skilled, now freelance, botanical artists on Facebook or Instagram. Lucy T Smith posts regularly on her work and, during our first 'lockdown', kept her followers entranced with progress on a painting of a Victoria amazonica leaf, as can be seen below.

Lucy T Smith

331 views3 comments


Nov 18, 2020

Fascinating. I keep coming across William Thistleton Dyer - presumably a husband or father?


Nov 17, 2020

I so look forward to reading these x

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