Well now that Spring finally feels like it has arrived, one’s thoughts head into dirt and gardens and plants and herbs, so wanted to share this article from the most recent issue of Colonial Williamsburg: “Uncommon and Expensive” by Mary Miley Theobald, on John Edwards’s The British Herbal – you can read it online here:
There may be no better guide to the plants that grew in eighteenth-century gardens than The British Herbal, a rare collection of botanicals by artist John Edwards, published in 1770. “It’s one of the most valuable books we have,” said Wesley Greene, garden historian in Colonial Williamsburg’s historic trades department. “It lets us document the sort of plants that were available in the colonial era.” Edwards referenced Linnaeus for every plant, allowing Greene and others to identify species precisely.
Edwards, John. The British Herbal, containing one hundred plates of the most beautiful and scarce flowers and useful Medicinal Plants which blow in the open air of Great Britain, accurately coloured from nature with their Botanical Characters, and a short account of their cultivation. London: Printed for the Author; and sold by J. Edmonson…and J. Walter, 1770.
You can see this slideshow of a number of the prints here: http://history.org/foundation/journal/Spring13/herbals_slideshow/#images/herbals4.jpg
[images from the Colonial Williamsburg article, photography by Barbara Lombardi]
The book is indeed quite rare: a quick look at auction records shows that one sold for $17,026 in 1993; for $25,300 in 1997 and for $36,000 in 2000.
One wonders if Jane Austen knew this work – there is no mention of it in her letters or novels, nor is it in Gilson’s bibliography as a work known to have been owned by her.
She may have been more familiar [as I was] with Elizabeth Blackwell’s A Curious Herbal (London, 1739) – you can view this whole work online at the British Library at their “Turning Pages” site: http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/ttp/blackwells/accessible/introduction.html#content
Blackwell’s illustrations are quite lovely as this one example of a male peony shows:
[image from Picturing Plants]
The story of Elizabeth Blackwell’s (1707-1758) creation and publication of this work is an interesting tale – she drew, engraved and colored all the illustrations to accompany the botanical descriptions of her doctor husband in order to pay his debts and effect his release from prison. Many of the plant specimens were from the Chelsea Physic Garden in London. A copy sold at Christies in 2009 for $17,500, and various plates appear at auction periodically.
We do know that Jane Austen knew of Gilbert White, author of The Natural History of Selborne (1789), and whose house, now a museum, was near the Austen’s home in Chawton. The herb garden at White’s house is depicted in Kim Wilson’s In the Garden with Jane Austen [page 98] with a list of the herbs, and you can visit the house and garden site here.
So now into the garden and away from the computer … but will ask, What is your favorite herbal book?