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

Conditions of use


Other formats

    Adobe Portable Document Format file (facsimile images)   TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Early New Zealand Botanical Art


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.