At the time of the introduction of the printing press, there was no real demand for
prints. Those that were published were more usually functional in nature or religious in content. This is not to undermine their quality as the likes of Albrecht
Dürer produced masterpieces of woodblock printing. The sixteenth century produced a number of fine natural history books but often these were illustrated with woodblock images that did not lend themselves to depth and quality. There was not the demand. Botanical books of the day for instance were all herbal in nature. In other words, they were about herbs and spices which aided health, well-being, or the production and preservation of food.
It was the introduction of the tulip bulb from the Middle East which was to have probably the greatest influence in our story. This flower was adored everywhere it was seen for its majesty, strength and beauty. The peoples of Europe, particularly the Dutch, tried desperately to grow it and repeat the magnificent colour striations seen in the petals. However we now know that the cause was in fact a viral infection! The demand for the bulbs became so high in the early seventeenth century that it started one of the first economic bubbles of the modern era. ‘Tulipmania’ as it was called led to the price of a bulb reaching high enough to equal that of a house!
This fascination coincided with two other events. Firstly botanical books began to be published using copperplate illustrations. This ‘harder’ material enabled greater quality of detail and
lent itself well to the beauty of many bulbs. Collectable books were published by the likes of Pierre Vallet, 1608, Emanuel Sweert, 1612, Johann Theodore de Bry, 1612, Daniel Rabel, 1622 and last but not least Basil Besler in 1613. His magnificent
Hortus Eystettensis published in Eichstatt reflected the peak of this period and the second great influence in this field. This was the burgeoning middle classes of Europe. Renaissance banking had enabled a boom in the trading of commodities and the countries of north-western Europe in particular
benefitted from this. This created wealth that was able to pursue interests and pastimes. Great houses were built and with the current fascination of plants they were accompanied by fine gardens. On publication, the book was the largest ever published and it included 368 fine plates which are instantly recognisable today, each of which can stand alone.
Copper plate engraving was the perfect artists medium for printed illustration of botanicals but it did not lend itself so well to the depiction of delicate birds feathers or to animals. Throughout much of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries these books were also published uncoloured. It was only the very wealthy or influential who could afford to have their works illuminated. When such decorative books appear on the market today they command extraordinary prices. Market demand however put pressure on the publishers to issue their works in colour. After all what use is an uncoloured botanical work featuring different species when the main difference is their colour? From about the 1730s this demand was met, most notably by Johann Wilhelm Weinmann who published the
Phytanhoza Iconographia in Regensburg, 1737-45. This fine work contained 1025 fine folio engravings many by the hand of a young artist called Georg Dionysius Ehret, arguably the greatest botanical artist of the eighteenth century. The use of mezzotint engraving enabled another level of subtlety to be added to the images.
As engraving skills improved, fine bird books began to appear at the hands of Eleazer Albin, 1731-38, George Edwards, 1743-64, Thomas Pennant, 1761-66 and Cornelis Nozeman, 1770-1829. Arguably the pinnacle of field was achieved with the gradual introduction of many more elaborate means of engraving with copper. Mezzotint, stipple and aquatint enabled far greater levels of subtle and soft engraving that leant themselves particularly to the more delicate flowers. Their finest hour was Pierre Joseph Redoute’s
Les Roses produced for the Empress Josephine in 1817-24. Another printing technique utilised limestone which led to the invention of lithograph. Finally a medium had arrived which suited ornithological works and arguably its finest proponent was John Gould who throughout much of the Victorian era produced thousands of magnificent colourful prints of birds from all over the world.