Quiescit anima libris. The spirit finds rest in books (and in museum objects, archival photographs, and garden sculpture). This is a Dumbarton Oaks project. For more about Dumbarton Oaks, visit

Tag: natural history

“Ferns will grow where flowering plants would perish”

by sarahkburke

From Francis George Heath's The Fern Paradise: A Plea for the Culture of Ferns.

From Francis George Heath’s The Fern Paradise: A Plea for the Culture of Ferns.

1850s London, as described by Charles Dickens in Bleak House: “Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes — gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.” The soot, the mud, the heavy London fog are used by Dickens to introduce the confusion and corruption of London’s High Court of Chancery, but the description also captures a very real environmental phenomenon in London. Fifty years later, Claude Monet’s paintings of Parliament documented the same heavy smog, the result of coal smoke and gas lamps.

There were early innovators, such as Benjamin Thompson (1753-1814) and Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), who developed “smoke-free” stoves to remove smoke from within the home. But this smoke could only go so far, and it became the key ingredient of the pea soupy miasma of industrial cities.

This smog killed people. It is also worth noting that the increased use of coal, beginning in the eighteenth century, was predicated on awful working conditions for miners and their families. In this context, it may not seem particularly tragic that the smog could make it difficult to maintain a tasteful garden! But it is fascinating to tease out how technologies (and people) adapt to changing circumstances. The introduction of the Wardian Case, invented by and named for Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward (1791-1868), is an excellent example.

From N. B. Ward's On the Growth of Plants in Closely Glazed Cases.

From N. B. Ward’s On the Growth of Plants in Closely Glazed Cases.

This case, akin to a terrarium, became popular very quickly because it could foster the growth of delicate plants in a sealed system. This protection was necessary because of the aforementioned air pollution, as well as the increasing interest in delicate plants such as ferns. It became so commonplace that in 1856 Shirley Hibberd asked, “Who would live contentedly, or consider a sitting-room furnished, without either a Ward’s Case or an Aquarium?”; the cases were popular among the middle class audience reached by authors like Hibberd and J. C. Loudoun. They were costly enough to be status symbols but less prohibitively expensive once English excise duties on glass were lifted in 1845. They created climates that suited the exotic plants imported and sold by nurseries such as that run by the Loddiges family. The cases compounded their own utility by being used onboard ships to transport fragile plants from overseas. And, as indicated by Hibberd, their design suited the Victorian taste for features like aviaries and aquariums.

From Shirley Hibberd's The Fern Garden.

From Shirley Hibberd’s The Fern Garden.

Wardian cases could support flowers, moss, and ivy. But Ward’s initial goal had been to develop a safe environment for his ferns. The Wardian case was one of the many manifestations of the Victorian fern craze, along with the cultivation of rockeries, the collection of pressed specimens, the creation of cyanotypes and nature prints (about which I will write further in an upcoming post), and other manifestations in decorative art. The cases, unlike some of these other technologies, could host living ferns and could remain on display as part of the furniture of a tasteful drawing room. Ferns were suited to the era’s fascination with the delicate, the intricate, and (to return to Hibberd) there are those who argued that it required excellent discernment to appreciate ferns, precisely because they were not gaudy with flowers.

What is coal? It is, ironically, the product of ferns. Over 300 million years ago, our earth was inhabited by giant insects and ferns the height of trees. When those ferns died, they sank into the swampy ground and compressed, first into peat and later into coal. This fossil fuel, when burnt, filled cities with smog and necessitated new technologies to protect fashionable plants.

From John Lindley's The Treasury of Botany.

Tree ferns in Java, from John Lindley’s The Treasury of Botany.

Allen, David Elliston. The Victorian Fern Craze: A History of Pteridomania. London: Hutchinson, 1969.

Heath, Francis George. The Fern Paradise: A Plea for the Culture of Ferns. Sixth edition. London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, and Rivington, 1880.

Hibberd, Shirley. Rustic Adornments for Homes of Taste: And Recreations for Town Folk, in the Study and Imitation of Nature. London: Groombridge and Sons, 1856.

Hibberd, Shirley. The Fern Garden, How to Make, Keep, and Enjoy It, Or, Fern Culture Made Easy. 2d. ed. London: Groombridge and Sons, 1869.

Lindley, John. The Treasury of Botany: A Popular Dictionary of the Vegetable Kingdom. New edition. London: Longmans, Green, and co, 1873.

Ward, N. B. On the Growth of Plants in Closely Glazed Cases. 2nd. ed. London: John Van Voorst, 1852.

Engravings and their Makers

by doconversationsblog

This post is provided by Anne Marie Creighton, who joins us this year as a research fellow in the Dumbarton Oaks Library.

For the past month, I have been leafing through centuries-old books. My task? To take notes on those rare books at Dumbarton Oaks that pertain to the Byzantine heritage of Ottoman Constantinople, recording my summaries of their illustrations, condition, and contents. So far, I have gone through between three and five thousand pages, depending on how you count them, in a dozen books in English, French, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, and Latin. I am approaching this project in chronological order, so to date I have worked with books published between 1545 and 1700. Among these books, I have been dismayed to learn how easily the leather of a cracking spine can leave red dust marks on my gloves, and I have gotten to know the delight of discovering passages and illustrations that surprise and charm, like the two engravings I’m sharing here today.

As an aside, I need to emphasize that I am not reading all of these books—I don’t even know all the languages in which they’re written. I have sometimes ended up doing a lot of reading to figure out books that proved particularly challenging, but, in general, the combination of a book’s table of contents, some light skimming, and modern studies of the book does the trick. I cannot emphasize enough what a wonderful advance the table of contents forms in the history of communication. Indexes, too.

My current shelf of books to work on

My current shelf of books to work on

The impetus for this post, however, comes from the Pre-Columbian Studies program in Dumbarton Oaks’ rare book collections—when our last shipment of books for digitization returned from Harvard, Bridget Gazzo, the Librarian for Pre-Columbian Studies, pointed out a fabulous pair of images to me that now lie at the end of this post. These images, an engraving of an astronomer and the original pencil drawing on which the engraving was based, got me thinking about the process of printing images. After that, I found an image from a book in my Byzantine work that also, I thought, brought home the humanity of the people who made the volume, even so many centuries later. The two books also make a good match because their authors—Charles du Fresne, sieur du Cange, a Byzantinist, and Charles-Marie de La Condamine, an astronomer—were both titans in their respective fields. I suppose it is also a testament to the culture of scholarship in early modern France that these two men were experts in topics as varied as Byzantine studies and astronomy!

A page of coins. Charles du Fresne du Cange,

A page of coins. Charles du Fresne du Cange, Historia Byzantina, before p. 1 [2nd set].

This engraving is from the Historia Byzantina of Charles du Cange, which is one of the foundational modern texts for the study of Byzantine history. Du Cange was a French nobleman in the seventeenth century with deep interests in medieval and classical studies. He has the rare honor of being called the father of two academic fields—both Byzantine and medieval Latin studies. Byzantine numismatics was among Du Cange’s many interests, so the thousand-odd page Historia includes about fifty pages of illustrations of coins, like this one. After seeing so many coins, I was starting to pay a little less attention, until we discovered the page above.

Printing an early modern engraving was a tricky business. In the period of this book, ink had to be made carefully, by hand, and often, so that it would stay fresh. Applying the ink to a carved wood block or an engraved metal plate that would create the image was another task, as was properly dampening the page. Ink would leave only a faint image on a page that was too dry; a page that was too wet, meanwhile, would cause the ink to smudge, or the paper itself to crease.

Sometimes, accustomed to modern books, I forget how much human labor was required to make books like this one. This error—whether the plate was printed upside down or whether, once printed, it was bound into the book incorrectly—makes the process of making these books seem more vivid to me.

An astronomer makes observations. Charles-Marie de La Condamine, Mesure des trois premiers degrés du méridien dans l’hémisphere austral, 105.

An astronomer makes observations. Charles-Marie de La Condamine, Mesure des trois premiers degrés du méridien dans l’hémisphere austral, 105.

This image, which Bridget pointed out to me, is the reason I started thinking about engravings this week in the first place. It comes from a title that records one of the most important eighteenth-century scientific expeditions in South America, one that set out to get south of the equator so that the members of the expedition could measure the shape of the earth. On the title page for La Condamine’s work about this effort, therefore, an engraving shows an astronomer taking measurements at night, hard at work by candlelight.

Printing an image like this almost always required the artistic services of both an artist – in this case P. Clavareau – and an engraver. By happy circumstance, Dumbarton Oaks has both Clavareau’s drawing and the engraver’s rendering of it.

"astronome par observation" (?) Pencil drawing by P. Clavareau. See the end of this post for bibliographic information.

“astronome par observation” (?) Pencil drawing by P. Clavareau. See the end of this post for bibliographic information.

You can see how differently textures work in graphite, even graphite done to preview an engraving, and in a print like this one. Graphite is soft, and can create flat shaded surfaces, uniformly gray, while the engraving requires that black be created through narrow lines, which even in the deepest shadows alternate white and dark.

Here are the two images side by side. Notice that they are the same size, and mirror images of each other. These are both characteristic of the way engravings like these were printed. To see more about this book, don’t neglect to look at the fully digitized copy!

A comparison of the two images of the astronomer

A comparison of the two images of the astronomer


Charles du Fresne du Cange, Historia Byzantina duplici commentario illustrata (Lutetiae Parisiorum: Apud Ludovicium Billaine, 1680), [HOLLIS].

Charles-Marie de La Condamine, Mesure des trois premiers degrés du méridien dans l’hémisphere austral, (Paris: De l’Imprimerie royale, 1751) [HOLLIS]. The HOLLIS record also includes further information about the drawing. The digitized version of this book is available here.

Something for Everyone: Thomas Shaw’s Travels

by sarahkburke

Thomas Shaw, Travels, or, Observations Relating to Several Parts of Barbary and the Levant. Oxford : Printed at the Theatre, 1738. [HOLLIS]

Title Page

Thomas Shaw (1694-1751), an early eighteenth-century travel writer, documented his experiences in the Levant, Sinai, Cyprus, and, indeed, most of North Africa.  While working as a chaplain in Algiers from 1720 to 1733, he explored widely and made numerous observations on architecture, antiquities, geography, geology, and natural history.

Temples at Sufetula

Upon his return to England Shaw was elected to the Royal Society on the basis of his early writings on Tunisia (in the 1729 Philosophical Transactions).  He spent much of the rest of his life at Oxford where he was a professor of Greek.  The full Travels, or, Observations Relating to Several Parts of Barbary and the Levant was published in 1738, with subsequent editions appearing in 1757 and 1808.  It is a true Wunderkammer of a book, boasting multiple maps, in addition to engravings of animals, plants, coins, temples, and antiquities.  There is even a page of musical notation.


The book was praised by Edward Gibbon, who wrote: “Our blind travelers seldom possess any previous knowledge of the countries which they visit.  Shaw and Tournefort deserve an honourable exception” (Decline and Fall vol. 2, 1914 edition, page 520).  Shaw apparently had both a background in the study of classical antiquity and some working knowledge of Arabic.  But Shaw’s observations of natural history may be the most significant of his contributions.  Johann Jakob Dillenius, a botanist at Oxford, prepared the catalog of Shaw’s plants (over 600 of which are listed at the end of the Travels) and some of Shaw’s specimens were included in Dillenius’s Historia Muscorum.  Both Dillenius and Shaw entertained Carl Linnaeus when he visited Oxford in 1736; Shaw was an early admirer of Linnaeus’s Systema naturae.



Every engraving in the Travels bears a dedication to a patron, preserving and promoting their names in a more prominent way than the typical subscribers list.  Shaw’s collection of curiosities, antiquities, and natural history specimens were left to Oxford on his death.  Many were kept in the Bodleian Library until transfer to the Ashmolean Museum in 1887.