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Australia the Exotic - Antique Prints

Antique prints of Australia's unique native flora

Antique maps and prints illustrate discoveries from around the world - places and inventions, science (including nature) and customs. Just as computers now provide the answer to almost any question, knowledge was previously made available by the circulation of publications illustrated with engravings and lithographs, writes specialist dealer Kathryn Nicholls from Antique Print Club.

Discoveries of 'new' lands often revealed unfamiliar 'natives' and the discovery and subsequent settlement of New Holland was no exception. Australia's isolation as a continent ensured its native plants adapted to the environment, unhindered by 'exotic' introduced plants and trees that might grow rampant or be spread by wildlife.

The strange beauty of Australian native flora was carefully recorded by the scientists who accompanied early voyages of exploration. When there was no professional botanist a ship's doctor or an artistic crew member was usually given the task, with scientific observation and artistic skill the only limitations.

Dampier, botanical artist - and buccaneer

William Dampier (1652-1715) was ten years old when his father, who was a farmer, died. William attended Latin classes until his mother also died when he was 16, when his guardians redirected his education towards writing and arithmetic. With his urge to see the world, Dampier was apprenticed to the master of a Weymouth ship which sailed to France and then Newfoundland.

After returning to London, Dampier joined a voyage to Bantam in the East Indies. In 1672 he spent time with his brother in Somerset. William enlisted in the Navy to participate with French allies in the Franco-Dutch War, but after two engagements he fell sick.

After several months' recuperation at home, a neighbour offered Dampier work on a sugar plantation in Jamaica, working his passage there as a seaman. After six months Dampier decided plantation work was incompatible with his personality. He left to participate in coastal trading, where he learnt "the benefit of the land and sea-winds", began his close observation of men and nature and, most importantly for us, began keeping a journal.

After logging in Mexico between 1675 and 1678, Dampier then turned to a more rewarding occupation at sea... as a buccaneer in the West Indies! On arrival in Brazil, with a yen to see the East Indies and a little of New Holland and New Guinea, Dampier transferred to Cygnet, a 'privateer' vessel (with British government approval to attack Spanish ships). Dampier's journals contained more than weather conditions and voyage directions!

When Dampier arrived on the west coast of Australia in 1688, Cygnetwas grounded for repairs for two months at Shark Bay. As he had done in Brazil and would do in New Guinea, William Dampier sketched local flowers, plants and grasses, birds and animals, and natives. He was not impressed with the terrain. After his return to England, copperplate engravings from these simple sketches were published in 1697 for Dampier's A New Voyage Round the World.

Nature discoveries were usually published with contemporary colour, each hand-coloured in accordance with the drawing from the artist on the voyage, but paintboxes were probably not a priority for pirates so Dampier's botanical engravings remained uncoloured when published.

Over more than twelve years, in just as many ships, during various voyages, Dampier circumnavigated the world three times - and became the first to do so. His stories of his travels were well received by the public and he revised and published to accommodate their popularity. Travel was something that most people could only be read about, and stories of discoveries were popular everywhere. "Voyages and Discoveries", with Dampier's maps and botanical sketches, were even published in France.

James Cook and Joseph Banks

Earliest major records of Australian flora were made when the east coast of Australia was finally discovered and charted by James Cook in Endeavour in 1770. Cook was accompanied by wealthy botanist Joseph Banks, who had appointed several scientists to undertake the voyage and also funded a large portion of the joint Royal Society and British Admiralty expedition.

Very few Australian botanical discoveries were published with accounts of Cook's voyage because Banks retained the majority of records and specimens for his personal library. Although Banks employed fine engravers to produce a large illustration of each botanical specimen, this work was not completed or published in his lifetime. Banks bequeathed his library to botanist Robert Brown, who gave the enormous collection to the British Museum (now the Natural History Museum). Between 1980 and 1990, the engraved plates for Banks's Florilegium were finally restored by the British Museum for their initial publication.

Sir Joseph Banks was president of the Royal Society for over 40 years. His contribution to the field of botany was enormous and he was recognised by the naming of Australia's distinctive family of Banksias after him.

Botanical artist Pierre-Joseph Redouté

In France, Napoleon Bonaparte encouraged scientific exploration and the publication of discoveries. Many botanical specimens from Australia were engraved and published first in France. Pancrace Bessa (1772-1846) was one of the foremost French botanical artists at that time. In 1782 Pierre-Joseph Redouté (1759-1840) moved to Paris to join his older brother as a decorative painter. Wealthy amateur botanist Charles-Louis l'Heritier de Brutelle encouraged him to paint flowers and instructed Redouté in plant anatomy. Redouté went to London with Heritier in 1786 to study rare plants growing at Kew Gardens and while in England Redouté mastered the exquisite art of stipple engraving, for which he gained renown in his botanical engravings.

On their return to France, Heritier introduced Redouté at court and also to botanical artist Gerard van Spaendonck, who improved Redouté's mastery of watercolour and employed him to assist at the Jardin du Roi (King's Garden, now Jardin des Plantes at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris). Redouté was official court artist to Queen Marie Antoinette until she was imprisoned.

After the revolution, Napoleon's wife, Empress Josephine, commissioned Redouté to illustrate the plants from around the world that were growing in her extensive garden at Malmaison. Redouté's original flower portraits are mostly in institutions today. Original engravings of his work are quite special, particularly those c.1800 from his large portraits of Australian native flora. Unfortunately these are rarely found in good condition.

Curtis's Botanical Magazine

After settlement of Australia in 1788, newly discovered botanical specimens were sent to Kew Gardens in England. William Curtis, as Praefectus Hortis (horticultural boss) at Kew, compiled The Botanical Magazine; or Flower-Garden Displayed (later renamed Curtis's Botanical Magazine with full page illustrations, many with fine dissections of the flowers, and accompanying text describing the place where each specimen was found, with advice on cultivation in England.

Some flowers were only found in Australia (or New Holland, as it was still named) and the illustrations have always been avidly collected. This magazine has been published almost continuously since 1787 - now known as Kew Magazine.

During the 18th century paper was hand-made and each copperplate engraving was hand-coloured with ochres ground from minerals and vegetables that do not fade like modern printing inks. (Of course, these days we are able to use Museum glass when framing pictures. Though expensive, it preserves the original condition of artwork.) As with other publications that illustrated botany, the method of illustration evolved over the years. Copperplates were replaced by more durable steel plates; and next images were sketched onto a lithographic stone for printing. When hand-colouring proved too slow and expensive, colour printing was introduced.

Paxton, gardener and entrepreneur

Despite little formal education, and by two years' exaggeration of his age, 15-year-old Joseph Paxton (1803-1865) began his working life as a gardener at the Horticultural Society's Chiswick Gardens, where he met the Duke of Devonshire from whom the gardens were leased. Recognising Paxton's enthusiasm and ability, the Duke appointed 20-year-old Paxton head gardener at Chatsworth House, one of the finest gardens in Europe.

For the Duke, Paxton designed a huge glass house conservatory which served as a model for his later design of the Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London. With jury discord over the proposed design, Paxton was approached, drew the design for the Crystal Palace in nine days, received great acclaim for his work - and was awarded a knighthood for his efforts. Although usually considered a landscape gardener, Paxton's diverse ability gained him considerable recognition.

In 1831 Paxton began publishing botanical illustrations as a monthly magazine, The Horticultural Register. Between 1834 and 1849 superb aquatints and hand-coloured lithographs illustrated his Magazine of Botany, and Register of Flowering Plants. Paxton published other botanical works, but these are almost glamorous with their depth and crispness of colour. They are quite a contrast in style from the more scientific-looking illustrations published by Curtis.

Paxton's illustrations are not as old, so are on thicker paper (not hand-made), yet the paper still shows slight age discolouration which complements the style and adds to their charm. Two exceptional botanical artists did these illustrations. Frederick (F.W.) Smith perfected the process of aquatint etching on a copperplate, printing each illustration in colour and colour-finishing by hand - and even highlighting the colour of some with gum arabic. The beautiful hand-coloured lithographs were by botanical artist Samuel Holden.

Native flora Australian publications

Since the 19th century our native flora has been published in Australia. The most beautifully practical Australian-published botanical work is surely The Flowering Plants and Ferns of New South Wales by the director of the Sydney Botanic Gardens, Joseph Henry Maiden, who commissioned 28 colour-printed lithographs for publication in Sydney between 1895 and 1898.

A leading advocate for the conservation of native forests and trees in urban areas, Maiden intended the illustrations to familiarise the population with their native flora. A noble idea!

Between 1899 and 1902, Frederick Manson Bailey's Queensland Flora was published in Brisbane. It was illustrated by simple, uncoloured, finely detailed images. Most of these lithographs are by Frederick Elliott, who is better known for his maritime watercolours. Printed on fine paper, these botanical illustrations are rarely seen today. We have some that have been hand-tinted by watercolour since publication and in the Antiquarian Books section of our website we currently have a complete set of Bailey's seven books of Queensland Flora (including the usually absent General Index).

Unlike animals and birds, botanical specimens did not challenge artists by moving, so tended to be more accurate scientific portrayals. Australia's unusual native flowers were considered quite exotic when specimens were received in England. Today the achievements of previous generations can be visually appreciated, whether the illustrations are traditional or unusual, simply representative or classically beautiful.

W: www.antiqueprintclub.com
E: sales@antiqueprintclub.com
T: 0412 442 283.

All illustrations courtesy Antique Print Club, Brisbane.

This feature first appeared in the Spring 2016 edition of Antiques and Collectables for Pleasure & Profit.