For those of you following our social media this week, you may have noticed a bit of a floral theme; more specifically, we have been posting a short series of botanical illustrations from William Curtis’s The Botanical Magazine: or, Flower-Garden displayed … (London, Fry & Couchman ‘for W. Curtis, at his Botanic Garden’, 1787).
This is the very first volume of the celebrated Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, ‘intended for the Use of such Ladies, Gentlemen, and Gardeners, as wish to become scientifically acquainted with the Plants they cultivate’ (title). The Magazine has been in continuous publication ever since and, as such, holds the distinction of being the longest-running illustrated botanical journal in the world; today, it is published quarterly by Kew. For its 200-year run, it has consistently showcased the best in botanical illustration; this first volume owes its plates to the great naturalist, publisher, engraver and illustrator James Sowerby (1757–1822), who would go on to produce several major works of his own on botany and geology.
William Curtis (1746–1799), son of a tanner, began cultivating an interest in botany while apprenticing under his grandfather, an apothecary. He soon ‘established a reputation as a botanist which led to his appointment as demonstrator of plants and praefectus horti of the Society of Apothecaries (1772–7) at the Chelsea Physic Garden. He established a botanical garden for the cultivation and study of native British plants at Bermondsey in 1773, though later, in 1779, he cultivated the more extensive London Botanic Garden at Lambeth Marsh’ (Oxford DNB). He crystallised his reputation in 1775 with Flora Londinensis, a periodical ‘extend[ing] to six fasciculi of seventy-two plates each, which remain the finest illustrations of British plants ever published’ (ibid.); his Botanical Magazine, which appeared a little over a decade later, would only build on that success.