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Gardening by the Book

Lita Solis-Cohen | June 16th, 2013


Priscilla Susan Falkner Bury, from A Selection of Hexandrian Plants, Belonging to the Natural Orders Amaryllidae and Liliacae, London, 1831-34. Collection of the Garden Club of America.

The Garden Club of America (GCA) is 100 years old. Since its founding in 1913, it has maintained a significant library, which is celebrated in a stunning exhibition of 400 years of botanical and gardening literature at the Grolier Club at 47 East 60th Street in New York City through July 27.

The exhibition, Gardening by the Book: Celebrating 100 Years of the Garden Club of America, is accompanied by a sumptuous catalog of the same name. Author and lecturer Arete Swartz Warren, the library chair for the GCA, chose 125 works to showcase. The catalog includes an essay on “Flowering Pages” by Leslie K. Overstreet, curator of natural history rare books at the Smithsonian Institution Libraries, and “Spirits in the Garden: American Women Writers and Designers in a Glorious Age of Garden Making” by Denise Otis. The catalog costs $50 ($40 for Grolier Club and GCA members) at the Grolier Club, and may be ordered by calling Oak Knoll Books at (302) 328-7232 or on line (www.oakknoll.com).

The exhibition, free to everyone, is like a refreshing walk in a garden, a place to cool off from the hot sidewalks in New York. The classic books are there—for example, Mark Catesby’s The Natural History of Carolinas, Florida and the Bahama Islands (1771) and Robert Thornton’s Temple of Flora (1799-1807), both in their original contemporary bindings. The original source of Flora Danica ceramics illustrations is the work of German-Danish botanist and physician Georg Christian Oeder (1728-1791), who wrote and illustrated the florilegium Flora Danica of all the wild plants found in the Danish lands, which included Norway, Iceland, and Greenland. In the exhibit are four volumes published from 1766 through 1777 on view next to a Flora Danica tureen with cover and stand, made in the second quarter of the 20th century.

Some of the show-stoppers are folio prints from A Selection of Hexandrian Plants, Belonging to the Natural Orders Amaryllidae and Liliacae, published by the workshop of Robert Havell in London in 1831-34, after botanical illustrations by Priscilla Susan Falkner Bury. She ranks among the most esteemed botanical artists along with Elizabeth Blackwell and Maria Sibylla Merian, some of whose artworks are also in the exhibition. Bury chose Robert Havell’s workshop, best known for its work for J.J. Audubon’s elephant-folio Birds of America,to engrave, print, and color her colored drawings in a folio format.

The exhibition goes well beyond the 19th century. There are letters, manuscripts, and photographs of English designer Gertrude Jekyll, first editions of Rachel Carson’s books including Silent Spring, and 20th-century garden books by GCA members.

In addition to color-plate books and botanical manuals, there are books on garden design and beautifully illustrated plantsmen’s trade catalogs. The earliest of these florilegia is by Emmanuel Sweert (c. 1552 -1612), published in the Netherlands. Sweert’s Florilegium Amplissumum et Selectissimum went into five printings from 1614 to 1655 and was an early catalyst for “tulipomania,” which swept through Europe in the early 17th century.

The exhibition should inspire others to collect. The catalog is full of information about the high points and provides a history of the GCA, founded in the Stenton Garden in Philadelphia on May 1, 1913. At the second meeting in Princeton in July 1914, the idea for a library was suggested. Subsequent GCA bulletins chronicled the growth of the collection, now fittingly celebrated in the Grolier Club exhibition and illustrated catalog.


Originally published in the July 2013 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2013 Maine Antique Digest

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