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Treasures of the Library : Nature printing

Darwin, Charles, 1758-1778, Darwin, Erasmus, 1731-1802

Treasures of the Library

<p style='text-align: justify;'>This small volume of ‘nature printed’ leaves and flowers offers an intriguing insight into late eighteenth-century botany. It belonged to Charles Darwin (1758-1778), the eldest son of Dr Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), of Lichfield, Derbyshire (himself the grandfather of the Charles Darwin of the ‘theory of evolution’ fame). As a child, Charles had been interested in botany, and had travelled with a botanical tutor in France when nine years old. He either made or acquired the book the year he went up to Oxford University, labelling it number eighty-four in his library, and noting the year as 1774. Charles left Oxford after a year to study medicine in Edinburgh. As a medic, he would be expected to have a knowledge of botany as many drugs were plant based. It is possible that this book continued to serve as a botanical aide memoire. The impressions it contained would not have helped with understanding botanical classification because this was dependent on the structure of the flower, but they could have been used to develop the observational skill necessary for recognising growing plants. The book’s small size indicates that it would easily fit into a pocket and it might have been used to identify plants when out on a walk.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Charles’s death in 1778, while still a medical student at Edinburgh University, meant that the book reverted to his father, just when Erasmus Darwin was developing an intense interest in botany. Erasmus planted a botanic garden in Lichfield and although he was to become more famous for his botanical poetry he also produced English translations of two works by the Swedish botanist Linnaeus, whose new system of classification was transforming botany. Erasmus was assisted by other members of the Botanical Society of Lichfield, and it is perhaps the communal nature of this enterprise that accounts for the inscription in his hand on the inside fly leaf of the nature printed book: ‘This book is Dr. Darwin’s, & is to be return’d when done with’. The translations produced by the Lichfield Botanical Society comprised <i>A system of Vegetables</i> (1783) and <i>The Families of Plants</i> (1787). The latter especially might explain why Erasmus Darwin went through the nature printed book adding the names of the Linnaean families to which the plants belonged (and occasionally the genus name if the one written in by Charles earlier was incorrect or the plant had been reclassified). The common names of plants provided by his son—such as ‘Devil’s Bit’ on <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(85);return false;'>page 89</a> or ‘Clown’s All-Heal’ on <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(203);return false;'>page 211</a>—might also have proved of use by serving as a source for the ‘Alphabetical catalogue of English and Scotch names of plants’ that was appended to both the translations of Linnaeus’s works produced by the Lichfield Botanical Society.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Nature printing was a technique for making an impression directly from a plant by inking a flattened specimen and pressing the inked side onto paper. Plants or parts of plants that were flat already (such as leaves) made the most effective impressions as is evident from this book. It was not until the nineteenth century that nature printing was developed as a technology involving plant impressions being made on soft lead, which then acted as a mould for much harder plates to be made that could produce multiple copies of the same specimens. Prior to this, only a few impressions could be made before a leaf fell apart, and most nature printed collections (like this one) are unique. Botanists relied on drawings and dried specimens to identify and classify plants. However, nature printing had some unique advantages. The impressions were life-size and were more transportable than drawings or specimens. It was also a useful technique for recording the flora of places where dried specimens were especially susceptible to decay. In 1801, when the famous travellers Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland realised that the collections they were making in tropical America were being devoured by insects, they adopted the emergency measure of inking their specimens and producing more permanent nature printed impressions.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>The nature printed impressions made in Charles Darwin’s book are delicate and detailed. Particularly fine is <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(219);return false;'>page 227</a> showing sage (<i>Salvia</i> in the Linnaean family Diandria Monogynia); the impressions of the front and back of two leaves capture their very texture. Other pages show the difficulty of accommodating life-size impressions on small pages. Helleborus (on <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(239);return false;'>p. 247</a>) had one segment of its leaf folded in before inking so that the leaf is depicted whole, albeit distorted. This echoes the technique of fitting dried plants on standard size paper. When, however, the impression is of a cluster of leaves and flowers (like the Black Henbane of <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(253);return false;'>p. 261</a>), no botanical information is lost by the impression being cut off by the edge of the page.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Dr Anne Secord <br />Darwin Correspondence Project</p>

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