By RONALD S. WILKINSON
Library staff removed the hundreds of volumes of the Curtis' Botanical Magazine from the enormous wooden crate in which they traveled from England to the Library one day last summer and carefully placed them on wooden book carts to verify that the set was complete and in good condition. It was; and the Library had finally acquired a great and long-time desideratum for the rare book collections, resulting in a happy ending to the story of one of the Library's most unfortunate losses.
The venerable and monumental Curtis' Botanical Magazine, one of the landmarks of botanical literature and natural history illustration, was founded by the English naturalist William Curtis in 1787 and has continued under various titles to the present day. The reputation of the magazine rests on the beauty and accuracy of its fine botanical illustrations. The plants featured are species from all over the world.
During the period of the magazine's rise to prominence in the 18th and early 19th centuries, explorers and plant hunters were traveling to many parts of the globe. Many of the plant specimens they brought back were novelties that were later described in the pages of the Botanical Magazine and then cultivated in England.
The magazine has had a long connection with the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, and it is currently published for the Bentham-Moxon Trust, Kew.
The early plates in the magazine were hand-colored engravings. A team of approximately 30 colorists, sitting side-by-side and using the original watercolor drawing as a model, painted the printed engravings. In the 19th century, lithography replaced engraving in the magazine's production, taking over completely in 1845. Lithographs were hand-colored in a similar manner, and amazingly, considering the cost and difficulty, hand-coloring continued until 1948, when a process of mechanical reproduction (four-color halftone reproduction) replaced the very expensive process of coloring each plate by hand.
The Library of Congress at one time had a complete run of the Botanical Magazine, but like a number of sets in other libraries, these issues suffered damage and loss; "Curtis" hand-colored plates have long been favorite targets of thieves. The Library's set was so ravaged that it was decided to purchase another complete set, which would be housed in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division.
As part of the "Gifts to the Nation" program, initiated to commemorate the bicentennial of the Library in 2000, Madison Council member William G. Myers, of Santa Barbara, Calif., donated a large sum to be used for the purchase of a replacement set of the Botanical Magazine. After a long search, the British natural history bookseller Wheldon & Wesley located a superb set of the magazine, and the difference between the Myers gift and the selling price was provided through the generosity of Lord Sainsbury of Turville, minister for science and technology in the British government, and Madison Council member Lady Sainsbury.
"The generosity of many Madison Council members has inspired new beginnings and supported new initiatives at the Library of Congress," said Librarian of Congress James H. Billington. "Bill Myers and the Sainsburys, in this instance, joined to bring a very happy ending to the Library's long search for this very important collected set of the Curtis' Botanical Magazine."
Ronald S. Wilkinson is the historian of science and scientific literature in the Science, Technology and Business Division.