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Tag: new acquisitions

Depicting ferns

by sarahkburke

A nature print by Henry Bradbury in Thomas Moore's The Ferns of Great Britain and Ireland (1855)

A nature print by Henry Bradbury in Thomas Moore’s The Ferns of Great Britain and Ireland (1855)

Ferns are relatively flat, making them particularly amenable to a variety of illustration techniques and decorative uses. Of course ferns have been depicted primarily using the standard illustration processes of a given period, specifically engravings and chromolithographs when we look at the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But their format has led to a striking variety of documentary technologies. Ferns are (metaphorically, if not biologically) fruitful sites for experimentation with illustration techniques.

Anna Atkins, "Title page of British Ferns'" (1852)  © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Anna Atkins, “Title page of British Ferns'” (1852) © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Perhaps the best-known examples of fern illustration are the cyanotypes produced by Anna Atkins, who used this early photographic method to document seaweeds and ferns. The cyanotype process is familiar to us today from architectural blueprints—and is widely available for both children’s art projects and home crafters. The technique entails placing objects on sensitized paper, exposing it to light, and then washing the paper to fix the negative image on a dark blue background. The cyanotype process is a type of photogram, a general term for creating a negative image on light-sensitive paper, no camera required. Dumbarton Oaks holds three photograms of ferns, all nineteenth-century French, and therefore of the same period as Atkins and fern mania.

One of three French photograms at Dumbarton Oaks

One of three French photograms at Dumbarton Oaks

The Victorian fad for ferns also led to experiments with using ferns as stencils for paint or for smoke, using soot from candle smoke to produce negative images of ferns on blank paper. Ferns appeared in a wide variety of decorative arts, including ceramics and architectural details. For more on this trend, see a previous post on this blog.

Another experimental type of image often associated with ferns is the nature print. While photograms make a negative image of an item against a darker background, nature printing most often uses the physical specimen to make an impression on a printing plate.

The two most familiar names in the history of this technique are Alois Auer, of Vienna’s Imperial Printing Office, and Henry Bradbury, who produced the illustrations for Thomas Moore’s The ferns of Great Britain and Ireland (1855). These illustrations make use of the softness of lead plates. Ferns were placed between a plate of lead and a plate of steel, exposed to pressure, and then removed; the lead would retain an impression of the specimen, and could be used to produce an electrotype plate for printing. It is obvious that Bradbury’s plates were created from specimens—one can see the flaws and characteristics of the specific plants. The plates do an excellent job of depicting fronds and stems, including veins and other minutiae. In many cases the roots are reduced to a blur. In some instances the locations of sporangia have been added by hand—a creative attempt to compensate for something left out in the process of creating the nature print.

Nature printing described in the preface to Thomas Moore's The ferns of Great Britain and Ireland (1855)

Nature printing described in the preface to Thomas Moore’s The ferns of Great Britain and Ireland (1855)


Both Auer and Bradbury were active in the 1850s, and each developed methods that entailed using a plant to create a plate. Over the centuries, there have also been many examples of printing directly from a plant. One fifteenth-century example, which includes a fern, is now found in the Universitätsbibliothek Salzburg.

A new acquisition to the Dumbarton Oaks collection is Johann Hieronymus Kniphof’s 1733 “herbarium vivum.” He continued this effort in several subsequent publications, but this was his first, and it is a fascinating example of experiments in capturing the likeness of a plant. Scientifically, many of the illustrations lack important details; the more useful parts of many illustrations have been added after the fact, by hand. But there is something particularly compelling about the desire to document a specimen with such fidelity.

Staghorn fern from Johann Kniphof's book of nature prints (1733)

Staghorn fern from Johann Kniphof’s book of nature prints (1733)

For comparison, here is the same print without the hand coloring, from ULB Sachsen-Anhalt.

Staghorn fern from Johann Kniphof's book of nature prints (1733), without hand coloring

Staghorn fern from Johann Kniphof’s book of nature prints (1733), without hand coloring

Photograms and nature prints were for the most part superseded by advances in photographic reproduction in the late nineteenth century. Much has been written about the meaning of changing modes of botanical representation—a quick nod to Daston and Gallison’s Objectivity will have to suffice for now—but it should be said that although there may be a general trajectory by which one can track changing trends, there are always interesting experiments occurring around the periphery.

A Strange Bird

by sarahkburke

This post is written by Sarah Burke Cahalan, Special Projects and Reference Librarian at Dumbarton Oaks.

I don’t always get a chance to pay close attention to the image orders that cross my desk. There are simply too many other details to monitor. The nature of the work necessitates a focus on paperwork, image specs, and the details of sending the right MediaFire link to the right patron. But an image from a new acquisition caught my eye, in part because images from this book will likely be used in the upcoming symposium volume for Botany of Empire. It also registered because it is just plain weird: What is this giant bird doing on a raft?

The harbor at Paita, Peru

The harbor at Paita, Peru

I posted the image on my personal Twitter account [“NBD. Just taking my eagle out for a paddle.”] and didn’t think much more of it, besides taking the usual satisfaction in the number of times the Tweet was starred and retweeted by colleagues who also enjoy the esoteric details we come across in special collections materials. But then I thought about it again over the weekend. This should be a relatively easy puzzle to solve. What was this giant bird doing on a raft? So I consulted the text.

Title page, Oost- en West-Indische voyagie

Title page, Oost- en West-Indische voyagie

Fortunately there is an English translation of Admiral Joris van Spilbergen’s Oost- en West-Indische voyagie, door de strate Magallanes naer de Moluques, a seventeenth-century account of a journey through the Strait of Magellan to Indonesia, commissioned by the Dutch East India Company (VOC). The Dutch and the Spanish were, of course, rival powers in this period, and this image shows the battle over the port of Paita, Peru in 1615. In the engraving, we see Dutch ships in the harbor and Dutch troops approaching the city, with Spaniards retreating over a hillside in the background. This book was acquired by Dumbarton Oaks in part because of its depiction of balsa rafts, such as the one with two sails in the middle foreground. The use of such rafts for riverine and oceanic travel dates far into the Pre-Columbian past, and this image is therefore a fascinating example of European and American vessels depicted side-by-side.

While VOC ships were moored in the harbor at Paita, Admiral Spilbergen dispatched some of his men to find food. On their expedition they also found two extraordinary birds. The following quotation is from the English translation I mentioned above:

During the time that we were at anchor the Admiral seeing that our victuals were beginning considerably to diminish sent four well equipped boats to the aforesaid Island de Loubes in order to catch some of these fish named loubes. This they did bringing a large quantity some still alive others dead and which when cooked were of good flavour and afforded perfect nourishment…

On the island our sailors also caught two birds of marvellous size having a beak wings and claws shaped like an eagle a neck like a sheep and combs on the head like cocks being formed in a very wonderful manner.

The “Island of Loubes” refers to the Lobos de Tierra, located to the south of Paita. And the bird? Most likely it was an Andean condor, which does in fact have a fluffy white neck “like a sheep,” and a comb and wattle like a rooster.

This 1648 volume reprints Willem Cornelisz Schouten van Hoorn’s publications of thirty years previous. The image itself derives from an earlier engraving; one example has been digitized by the John Carter Brown Library.

Healing Plants from Brazil

by sarahkburke

This post is provided by Bridget Gazzo, Librarian for Pre-Columbian Studies at Dumbarton Oaks.

plate 22, Davilla rugosa

plate 22, Davilla rugosa

Saint-Hilaire, Auguste Francois César Prouvencal de, 1799-1853. Plantes Usuelles des Brasiliens. Paris, Grimbert (printed by Casimir), 1824-1828. [HOLLIS]

From the beginning of Brazil’s colonization by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century, Europeans were keenly interested in its biodiversity. Jesuit priests, the first foreigners to make direct contact with native Brazilians, integrated Brazilian botanical remedies into European medicine. The French botanist Auguste de Saint-Hilaire was one of the first scientists to freely travel throughout Brazil, from 1816 to 1822. Saint-Hilaire, born in Orleans in 1799, had the opportunity to accompany the Duke of Luxembourg on his journey to Brazil to assume his post as French Ambassador in Rio de Janeiro in 1816. Saint-Hilaire spent the next six years traveling ten thousand kilometers to explore the southern provinces of Minas Gerais, Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Santa Catarina, Rio Grande do Sul, Espiritu-Santo, Mato Grosso, Cisplatina (currently Uruguay), and the old missions in Paraguay. He returned to France carrying 7000 plant species, 4500 of which were unknown to science at the time. These collections are deposited in Paris’ Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, along with Saint-Hilaire’s six volumes of field books. In his field books, Saint-Hilaire registered the vernacular names of the plants and, very importantly, also provided descriptions of the traditional uses.

While data from many species recorded in the field books has been published, as many as 75 species from these manuscripts have not been published by Saint-Hilaire or by later scientists. These field books continue to be a trove of unstudied raw material. The most common traditional uses recorded for the plants identified were as purgatives and febrifuges. Next in frequency were treatments for venereal disease, snake bites, and diuretics. Many of these efficacies have been, and continue to be, confirmed by laboratory studies.

Plantes Usuelles des Brasiliens (1824-[1828]) is one of Saint-Hilaire’s major publications on native Brazilian plants and their beneficial uses. Dumbarton Oaks has recently acquired a copy of this work, which will supplement research in Pre-Columbian Studies and the exciting, interdisciplinary work being done on the history of science in the New World. The first plant described and illustrated is none other than Strychnos faux-quinquina, with nom vulgaire quina do campo, highlighting the intense nineteenth-century interest in quinine and quinine substitutes. Another quinine substitute included in the book is Solanum pseudoquina. (Cinchona, the traditional source of quinine, was often over-collected, leading to the search for substitutes.) The author dedicates the book to the Emperor of Brazil, Pedro I, with gratitude for the constant protection of his Majesty’s government during six years of traveling through Brazil. Our newly acquired copy is an especially interesting object because of its hand-colored images and its retention of the publisher’s original boards and wrappers.

plate 21, Solanum pseudoquina

plate 21, Solanum pseudoquina

Anda gomesii

Anda gomesii