Hidden Treasures: Curtis’s Botanical Magazine

This article is the first of our year-long “Hidden Treasures” series in which Alyssa B. Young, Special Collections Librarian, features notable works in the BRIT rare book collection.

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One of the treasures of BRIT’s rare book collection is Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, a premier journal for early botanical illustrations and descriptions. The journal has featured over 10,000 color illustrations in its 230 years of publication. Originally titled The Botanical Magazine, it is the longest running illustrated botanical periodical and is still being published today.

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The first volume was published on February 1, 1787, by William Curtis, an English botanist and apothecary who aspired to make information about ornamental and exotic plants affordable and accessible. As stated on the title page, the magazine was “intended for the use of such ladies, gentlemen, and gardeners, as wish to become scientifically acquainted with the plants they cultivate.” It gained popularity due to its approachable mix of beautiful illustrations and practical information, presenting serious botanical science in an easy-to-understand format.

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Curtis instructed his artists to draw the plates “from the living plant, and coloured as near to nature, as the imperfection of colouring will admit.” The first 30 volumes feature copper engravings that were colored by hand, leading to slight (but precious) inconsistencies between each copy. Accompanying each plate is a description of the plant containing the scientific name, common names, plant properties, growth characteristics, and history.

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BRIT’s first six volumes of Curtis’s Botanical Magazine belonged to Charles Cotesworth Pickney (1746-1825), a Revolutionary War veteran, a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, and a signer of the United States Constitution.

Contact library@brit.org for more information about this magazine or our rare book collection.

Alyssa B. Young

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