Title: Early New Zealand Botanical Art

Author: F. Bruce Sampson

Publication details: Reed Methuen, 1985, Auckland

Digital publication kindly authorised by: F. Bruce Sampson

Part of: New Zealand Texts Collection

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Early New Zealand Botanical Art

XIII — Henry Field's Ferns of New Zealand

page 109

Henry Field's Ferns of New Zealand

The "Victorian fern craze" was at its height in England in the 1850s. Twenty years later this enthusiasm for ferns, which had been labelled "Pteridomania", became fashionable in New Zealand. The fern craze had its origin in the invention of the Wardian case. Nathaniel Ward, a London surgeon, discovered by accident that plants enclosed in nearly airtight glass cases can survive and grow almost indefinitely. Moisture that condenses on the inside of the glass when plants transpire in sunlight drips onto the soil at night. Today, bottle gardens use this principle. Wardian cases had considerable commercial application, because plants could be placed in them for long sea voyages and reach their destination in excellent condition, without needing attention en route.

Coupled with this desire to grow ferns in elaborate cases that could be displayed in drawing rooms was a craze for purchasing books on ferns. Publishers eagerly responded to the demand and many books were printed. Some of them were beautifully illustrated, for example, Walter Fitch's A Popular History of the British Ferns. Others had plates that were "nature printed" directly from fern fronds. Many fern enthusiasts made their own books of pressed ferns. By the late 1860s the fern craze was replaced by another fad in Britain — aquaria.

Joseph Hooker's Flora Novae-Zelandiae (1855) contained the first detailed descriptions of New Zealand ferns and these were updated in his Handbook of the New Zealand Flora (1864, 1867). In 1880 Herbert B. Dobbie's New Zealand Ferns appeared, first in two parts then in a single volume. Known as "Dobbie's Blue Book", and without text, it contained 104 pages of illustrations, sometimes with more than one species per page. The illustrations resemble blueprints and show natural-sized pieces of fern as white silhouettes against a garish blue background. Bagnall's New Zealand National Bibliography (1980) records that the illustrations were made from originals, which were mounted on glass and reproduced by dye process, a method Dobbie called "a simple form of photography or nature printing". Some of the illustrations were, it seems, made by his sister, Mary Beatrix Dobbie (1850-80). Herbert Dobbie gave his illustrations to Eric Craig page 110 (1829-1923), who reproduced them, after some rearrangement and the addition of a few new illustrations, in his own "Blue Books" (first edition ca. 1888, second edition ca. 1892). Eric Craig ran a shop in Auckland, where he catered to the "fern craze" and sold pressed ferns in elaborate wooden boxes, or mounted on cardboard or in books. The books were beautifully made with wooden ("mottled kauri") or leather covers. Some of these are still in excellent condition in the Auckland Museum. Craig also sold live ferns in Wardian cases, as well as Maori artefacts, carvings, shells, kauri gum and greenstone ornaments. Herbert Boucher Dobbie went on to write the most comprehensive books to date on the ferns, in which each species was illustrated by one or more photographs (New Zealand Ferns, 2nd edition, 1921; 3rd edition, 1931; 4th (1951), 5th (1952) and 6th (1963) editions, revised and edited by Marguerite Crookes).

Eight years before Field's Ferns appeared, Thomson's The Ferns and Fern Allies of New Zealand, with Instructions for their Collection and Hints on their Cultivation was published (1882). George Malcolm Thomson (1848-1903) was then a teacher at Otago High School, Dunedin. He became one of the most distinguished biologists of his time and made major contributions to the fields of pollination ecology of flowering plants, introduced plants and animals, and marine zoology. Through his efforts the Portobello Marine Biological Station was established in Otago. Thomson's 132-page book, with four plates and a frontispiece, contained descriptions of all species then known and was praised by Thomas Cheeseman for its accuracy and usefulness. The lithographic plates illustrate thirty-nine of the 145 species described in the text. Thomson's drawings are well done, but rather crowded on each plate.

Field's Ferns of New Zealand

H. C. Field's The Ferns of New Zealand and its Immediate Dependencies with Directions for their Collection and Cultivation was printed and published by A.D. Willis, Wanganui, in 1890, in conjunction with Griffith, Farren, Okeden and Welsh of London and Sydney. It is of a larger format than Thomson's work and has 164 pages of text and twenty-nine plates. However, Thomson's book was more comprehensive, for it included fern allies, such as club-mosses (lycopods), water ferns and psilophytes. Field's Ferns described 138 species as well as a number of varieties, some of which are now recognised as separate species. All but six species are illustrated. The author recognised several new species but did not formally name them, simply citing the generic name, followed by "new species" (for example, "Pteris New species"). A few introduced species, which had been found growing wild, were included.

Henry Field was, in the introductory section of Ferns, critical of previous books on New Zealand ferns, noting, "a written description of a plant can hardly render it capable of identification by a non-scientific reader unless it is illustrated by a drawing." Thomson's book was, he conceded, the best page 111 book on the subject, but the plates "were only of portions of fronds, showing their fructification, and this seems to have been regarded as insufficient to enable identification of the plants. The price has now been lowered, and I learn that it is selling far better in consequence." The plates in Dobbie's New Zealand Ferns were "so roughly got up that few people seemed to care to buy them: in fact, as the fructification of the ferns was not shown, it would have been almost impossible to identify some of them."

Field's text is written in a clear style and has dated little. He has interesting things to say about what constitutes a fern, the parts of ferns, collecting, pressing and classifying them. A chapter on cultivation of ferns gives straightforward advice:

If you want to get a fern to grow, you must note the conditions under which it naturally occurs; and imitate these conditions as closely as you can . . . The best material in which to plant ordinary bush ferns is the mould formed by the utter decay of a large tree-stump. This is often to be met with in the bush, forming a mound, and is well worth the trouble of carrying it home. It is a good plan, in potting a fern brought from the bush, to cut away most of the fronds. This prevents the strength of the plant being exhausted, in the effort to keep the fronds alive, before the roots have got a proper hold of the soil, so as to draw nourishment from it; and when they have done so, fresh fronds will be produced . . . What most ferns want is an atmosphere so highly saturated with moisture that it will condense on their fronds like dew. Then they are in their glory ... A very cheap and yet effective fernery, however, may be constructed with walls of closely packed manuka-scrub, secured to a wooden framework and a roof of similar scrub, left sufficiently open to admit a moderate amount of light.

As one might anticipate, with such a small botanical community in New Zealand, people whose assistance Field acknowledged included Thomas Cheeseman, William Colenso, George Thomson and Thomas Kirk. An interesting reflection of prevailing ideas on the place of women in New Zealand society is seen in Field's acknowledgement of assistance from "several ladies in various parts of the colony who might not care to see their names in print".

Henry Field's life

Henry Claylands Field was born in Holybourne, Hampshire, England, in 1825. He was educated at Stockwell Grammar School, the City of London School, and at King's College, London. He chose civil engineering for a career and was an articled pupil of Sir John Rennie, a famous engineer who completed the construction of the new London Bridge, which his father had designed. In 1845 Henry Field began working for an English railway company, then in 1851 he emigrated to New Zealand on the Simla. He was appointed clerk and engineer to the Wanganui Town Board, and subsequently acted as engineer or consulting engineer for a number of roads boards, being responsible for the construction of 2,000 miles (3,200 kilometres) of roads, including the Parapara Road between Wanganui and Taupo.

page 112

Field played an active part in public life and was for many years vice-president of the Wanganui Horticultural Society, president of the Wanganui Harmonic Society and a member of the Anglican Diocesan Synod and General Synod. He retired from active engineering work in 1884. Information is not readily available on Henry Field's wife, who bore him five daughters and six sons. Field noted in his book that four of his sons were, or had been, employed as government surveyors and that they, and his two other sons, collected many ferns for him. He himself had hunted ferns from north of Auckland to the Otago goldfields.

Following the publication of his book, Henry Field wrote five brief papers on ferns, which were published in the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute. They were based mostly on material sent by readers of his book. Although he commented on what he considered to be new species, he did not formally describe them in these papers. Field also wrote articles on astronomy and biology for the Wanganui Chronicle. His last paper for the Transactions was in 1905, and in this he mentioned that he had become blind.

Plate 39 Blechnum, Gleichenia, Trichomanes and Phymatosorus

1.   1A Vegetative and reproductive leaves of Blechnum capense (named as Lomaria procera in Field's book) are depicted here. Blechnum is the only genus of higher ferns in New Zealand to have markedly different, large, green, sterile leaves and brown fertile ones. Blechnum capense, the kiokio, is abundantly distributed in lowland to alpine forest in North, South and Stewart Islands, the Kermadec, Chatham, Auckland, Campbell and Antipodes Islands. It is a complex species, consisting of at least four separate forms. The kiokio occurs too in Australia, Tasmania, the Pacific Islands, Malaysia, South Africa, South America and the West Indies.

2.     Gleichenia dicarpa {Gleichenia circinata), the swamp umbrella fern, is common throughout New Zealand in open scrublands. A small-leaved alpine form, variety alpina, thrives in mountain swamps, although it descends to sea level in the south of the South Island. Swamp umbrella fern occurs too in Australia, New Caledonia and Malaysia.

3.     Trichomanes (Cardiomanes) reniforme, the kidney fern, is shown also in Georgina Hetley's watercolour (Plate 38). It is abundant in lowland forest throughout New Zealand. The common name derives, of course, from the shape of the leaves. The sporangia are borne in vase-like structures around the upper semi-circular margin of each leaf.

4.     Phymatosorus (Phymatodes) diversifolius. This too is a very common fern. It has a creeping stem (rhizome), which lies on the surface of the ground or on tree trunks. A fern that has been subjected to many name changes, it is known as Polypodium billardieri in Field's book. The specific name diversifolius refers to the varied shape of the leaves, as indicated in the plate. The dark rounded spots on two of the leaves (4 and 4B) show the position of hemispherical clusters of sporangia. As well as occupying a wide range of altitude throughout New Zealand, this fern is found in Australia, Tasmania and Polynesia.

The illustrations in this Plate are, as in Field's book, two-thirds actual size.

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Plate 39 Blecbnum capense (L.) Schlecht.; Gleichenia dicarpa R. Br.; Trichomanes reniforme Forst. f.; Phymatosorus diversifolius (Willd.) Pichi Serm. Henry Field

Plate 39 Blecbnum capense (L.) Schlecht.; Gleichenia dicarpa R. Br.; Trichomanes reniforme Forst. f.; Phymatosorus diversifolius (Willd.) Pichi Serm. Henry Field

page 113

Henry Field had previously written another book, but on quite a different topic — Modern Light on Christianity. Being a criticism of the principal legends, and notes on modern religious knowledge, and on the Christian thought of the present day appeared in 1903, published by the author and printed by A. D. Willis.

Henry Field died in 1911, aged eighty-seven.

The illustrations

The firm of A. D. Willis, publishers and printers of Field's Ferns, had a high reputation, both for the quality of their letterpress and for their lithography, especially chromolithography. It was an enterprising firm, whose postcards featuring views of New Zealand cities, Christmas cards and playing cards were well known. A. D. Willis held a patent on a method for cutting circular-cornered playing cards, which were sold for a shilling a pack and were "equal to any imported" and considerably cheaper because of high duty on English cards.

Plate 40 Doodia, Lastreopsis, Nephrolepis, Botrychium and Hymenophyllum

1.     Doodia media is a common fern found on dry banks in clearings and forest margins in lowland parts of the northern North Island. It is uncommon south of Rotorua but does reach Nelson and Marlborough. Young leaves are a characteristic rosy-pink colour. This species occurs also on Norfolk Island and Pacific Islands as far east as Hawaii.

2.     Lastreopsis (Ctenitis) velutina lives in lowland forests in the North and South Islands but is uncommon near its southern limits. The fronds, especially the stipes, are covered with red-brown hairs. In Field's book the plant is named as Nephrodium velutinum.

3.     Nephrolepsis cordifolia, known as "ladder fern" or "sword fern", is restricted in New Zealand to thermal areas in the Rotorua-Taupo district, but occurs also on the Kermadec Islands and in many tropical regions.

4.     Doodia caudata grows in Australia and discontinously in the North Island of New Zealand from Kaitaia southwards.

5.   5A. Botrychium australe (Botrychium ternatum in Field's Ferns), the "parsley fern", is scattered throughout the North and South Islands and usually grows in lowland to montane forest margins and clearings. Although it may seem, from the illustration, that there are separate vegetative (5) and reproductive (5A) leaves, both appendages are generally considered to be morphologically part of a single leaf. Botrychium belongs to a group, the Ophioglossales, that is believed to be rather distinct and more primitive than "higher" ferns.

6.     Hymenophyllum pulcherrimum. The specific name of this species of filmy fern means "most beautiful". A small, tufted fern with leaves up to twenty-five centimetres or more long, it occurs mostly on tree tunks in lowland to montane forest. Hymenophyllum pulcherrimum is found in the North Island (south of Auckland), South Island, Stewart Island and the Auckland Islands.

In this Plate the plants are shown two-thirds their natural size.

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Plate 40 Doodia media R. Br.; Lastreopsis velntina (A. Rich.) Tindale; Nephrolepis cordifolia (L.) Presl; Doodia caudata (Cav.) R. Br.; Botrychium australe R. Br.; Hymenophyllum pulcherrimum Col. Henry Field

Plate 40 Doodia media R. Br.; Lastreopsis velntina (A. Rich.) Tindale; Nephrolepis cordifolia (L.) Presl; Doodia caudata (Cav.) R. Br.; Botrychium australe R. Br.; Hymenophyllum pulcherrimum Col. Henry Field

page 114

Archibald Willis had, like Emily Harris and Georgina Hetley, exhibited at the New Zealand Industrial Exhibition (Wellington, 1885) and received the silver medal for chromolithographic printing. Dr T. M. Hocken, well-known surgeon, ethnologist, historian, bibliographer and founder of the Hocken Library, Dunedin, visited Wanganui in 1889 and toured Willis's establishment, which had approximately twenty-six employees. He expressed surprise and pleasure "at the perfection of Mr Willis's plant and apparatus for lithographic printing".

The lithographs for Field's Ferns were probably made by William ("Billy") Potts, a highly skilled technician whom Willis brought to New Zealand, probably in 1881, and who worked for him for nearly twenty years. Potts was a quiet retiring bachelor who lived in lodgings and took little part in community affairs.

The ferns illustrated do not follow the same order as they do in the text. Henry Field had hoped to use chromolithography "to print the ferns in their natural colours, and they were arranged according to those colours". This would have made the book "too costly for ordinary readers" and he had to be content with "a style of lithography which, though new and of a high class character, is less expensive".

As Plates 39 and 40 demonstrate, the lithographs are unusual and more elaborate than normal monochrome ones. The first step in printing each plate was to give it a light buff-grey background colour, commonly used in chromolithography. Two other colours — medium grey for the bulk of each fern and dark grey for arrangement of sporangia, veins, and so on — were then printed over the background colour. Microscopic examination of the plates shows that the dark grey is overprinted on the medium grey. A separate stone was probably needed for each of these colours. In some plates (Plate 40, 5A) a third colour, medium brown, was used to highlight a small part of the illustration. This colour was printed before the greys. Such a form of lithography certainly has some of the virtues of chromolithography, but at a lower cost. The first of the twenty-nine plates has thirty-four figures, illustrating the different types of fructifications (sporangia and their arrangement) in the ferns.