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Prints are charming; TheVictorians' passion for plants has left us with a wealth of knowledge and colourful images for our walls.

Byline: ANTIQUES With Christopher Proudlove

Reseda odorata, Tropaeolum majus and Althea rosea (Walter Fitch - PGP) IF OUR hosts were frustrated by our insisting we visit all the charity and antique shops we could find last weekend, then they certainly made up for it by making us trawl around their local garden centre...not just once, but twice - in the same day.

I had no idea one person could spend so much on pot plants, but then she does own one of the most beautiful gardens in the area. It surrounds an equally charming home, all created over time from what was once a field on a hillside.

It came as something of a relief then when the Business Manager (Mrs P) pointed out that collecting pictures of flowers - a great Victorian pastime - was back in vogue. I suspect she was softening me up for the likely cost of framing a group of prints she found in an old book she had rescued. They will look great, though when hung together on the same wall.

The book goes by the grand title of Popular Garden Botany: Containing a Familiar and Scientific Description of Most of the Hardy and Half-Hardy Plants Introduced into the Flower Garden. It was written and published in 1855.

The author, Agnes Catlow, and publisher, Lovell Reeve, are each fascinating characters in their respective fields and the book, a first edition, is of some importance to a collector. It's probably worth around PS50, but sadly, it's on its last legs.

Though I hate the practice of breaking books, rescuing the 20 splendid lithographic plates Agnes's tour de force contains is the literary equivalent to putting a horse down when it has broken its leg. At least something will be saved from the painful process.

Agnes Catlow (c1807-1889) was a remarkable woman although, sadly, precious little is known about her, other than the fact that she was hugely knowledgeable in the natural sciences, writing on everything from botany to conchology.

This latter interest was presumably how she came into contact with Lovell Augustus Reeve (1814-1865) the son of a London draper who became one of the leading experts of his generation in the study of shells.

The lyrical works that flowed from Agnes's pen were numerous. In the Preface to Popular Garden Botany, she writes: "A taste for the cultivation of flowers having greatly increased during the last few years, a garden, whether small or great, is not only considered quite a necessary appendage to a country house but even in the town almost every available spot is devoted to this desirable purpose. The inmates of the cottage, as well as those of the palace, cultivate flowers suitable to their means and the extent of their grounds..."

In addition to books introducing children to the delights of botany and natural science and history, Agnes was among those instrumental in popularising the subjects at a time when the Victorian middle classes turned the hobby into a craze.

This produced a huge demand for scientific books and that, coupled with more affordable publishing and the Victorian passion for all things ornate, was enough to give Agnes and Reeve all the encouragement they needed.

Her works included, among others, The Conchologist's Nomenclator, published in 1845; Drops of Water: Their Marvellous and Beautiful Inhabitants Displayed by the Microscope (1851); The Children's Garden and What They Made of It (1865); and her "Popular" series, volumes which also covered field and greenhouse, botany, shells, fossils and even rambles in the Alps.

Reeve, meanwhile, was apprenticed to a grocer at the age of 13, but became interested in conchology when a sailor visited the shop in Ludgate Hill and sold him conch shells he had brought back from a South Seas voyage.

In 1842 Reeve opened a shop in the Strand dealing in natural history specimens and was elected to membership of the Geological Society in 1853, where he won sponsorship from Charles Darwin, although he was unsuccessful in an attempt to become of fellow of the Royal Society.

He was the author of many books on shells, most notably the 20-volume Conchologia Iconica, or, Illustrations of the Shells of Molluscous Animals" published in 1843.

Reeve turned to publishing when he acquired William Curtis's Botanical Magazine, which was linked closely with the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.

Reeve also launched the Floral Magazine in 1860 and edited the London Literary Gazette from 1850 to 1856, as well as the Stereoscopic Magazine, which contained three stereo photographs with descriptions every month.

Still referred to as Curtis's Botanical Magazine and published continuously since 1787, the publication was eventually acquired by the Royal Horticultural Society and is now incorporated with Kew Magazine, which continues today.

William Curtis (1746-1799) was a trained pharmacist living in London.

He was fascinated by the study of flora and insects and maintained a large garden where he grew beautiful exotic plants. He established his own London Botanic Garden in 1779.

Look out too for illustrations by Glasgow-born Walter Hood Fitch (1817-1892) a member of a select group of illustrators for Curtis's magazine alongside William Kilburn, James Sowerby, Sydenham Edwards and William Jackson Hooker, all of whose work is sought after by today's collectors.

Fitch drew more than 2,700 plates for the magazine between 1834-77 (he also illustrated our Agnes Catlow book) while his nephew, John Nugent Fitch (1840-1927) another contributor to Curtis's magazine from 1878, is famous for his Orchid Album, a landmark work of 11 volumes published between 1872 and 1897.

Cream of the crop, however, are engravings published by Doctor Robert Thornton (1768-1837) for the grandly named Temple of Flora, a "botanical work of national importance" that bankrupted him.

Thornton commissioned paintings from leading botanical artists all of whom were acclaimed for their dramatic representation of the flowers in romantic landscapes. It was a truly monumental work.

However, by the time plates had been engraved to Thornton's satisfaction, Britain was fighting Napoleon and the government had raised taxes to pay for the war, making money tight among Thornton's likely customers. Few copies of the book were sold.

Faced with mounting debt, he held a lottery on May 6, 1813 offering copies of the book as prizes, but it was a flop, leaving Thornton "forever after a beggared man" to quote one contemporary report. He died at his London home in 1837, leaving so little property there was no point in him making a will.

Today, a copy of the complete book is priced in the realms of Old Masters, while single prints change hands for PS15,000 or more.


An orchid print by John Nugent Fitch worth PS100-200 PHOTO: Ewbank's auctioneers

Left: a Walter Fitch illustration from Popular Garden Botany(PGP) showing Chrysanthemum Sinense, Lobelia splendens, Valeriana rubra and Scabiosa atropurpurea

Pharbitas hispida and Convolvulus tricolor (Walter Fitch - PGP)

Another orchid print by John Nugent Fitch worth PS100-200 PHOTO: Ewbank's auctioneers

Jasmine officinalis and Jasmine fruticans (Walter Fitch - PGP)

Battered but not yet broken: Popular Garden Botany by Agnes Catlow and illustrated by Walter Fitch
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Jun 20, 2015
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