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

William Curtis

William Curtis

Curtis was born in Alton, a town in Hampshire where Jane Austen lived for ten years. His home has been converted into a small museum in his memory. At the age of fourteen he was apprenticed to the local apothecary, his grandfather. He therefore began to study plants for their medicinal properties, although it is said he caught the "botanical disease" from a literate plant enthusiast, who was a stableman at the Crown Inn next to his grandfather's shop. At the end of his apprenticeship, William Curtis, aged twenty, moved to London and worked, first as an assistant, then as a partner, in an apothecary's practice in Gracechurch Street. Before long, Curtis sold his share of the business so that he could more readily pursue his obsessional interests in natural history. He purchased land for a garden, at first at page 62 Bermondsey, and spent his time collecting, reading, gardening and exchanging ideas with other naturalists. In 1773, at the comparatively young age of twenty-seven, he was appointed garden superintendent and botanical demonstrator to the Society of Apothecaries at Chelsea, an office he held for four years. He resigned the post to give himself more time for gardening and writing. He wrote a book on insects, and translated and illustrated a book on the same topic by Linnaeus. Then he decided to start his own botanical garden, which, after several moves, was finally established at a pleasant site at Brompton, where he maintained it till he died. The gardens eventually contained more than 6,000 species and were divided into various sections — medicinal, culinary, agricultural, poisonous, British and ornamental plants. For an annual subscription of a guinea, admission was gained to the gardens and to lectures he gave there, which attracted large audiences. For two guineas a year, subscribers received a share of plants and seeds as they became available for distribution. Curtis received plants from a number of sources, including Kew Gardens and Sir Joseph Banks.

Six years after his death, Curtis's lectures were published in the form of three illustrated volumes by his son-in-law, and their popularity was such that a second edition appeared two years later. William Curtis was an indefatigable writer. His books included A History of the Brown-tail Moth (1782) and Practical Observations on the British Grasses (1790), which ran to several editions. He was almost ruined financially when he started an ambitious project, the Flora Londinensis. The purpose of this was to describe and illustrate plants that grew within a ten-mile radius of London. In 1777, the same year in which he resigned from his post at Chelsea, the first part of Flora Londinensis appeared. For ten years he persevered with this task, but by 1787, when another volume appeared, he was almost bankrupt. Clearly, people were not very interested in buying illustrated accounts of the modest wayside plants of Britain. They might well, however, wish to purchase a magazine featuring the exotic plants they were including in their gardens. After all, it was "the golden age of botany" and collectors were travelling the world in search of new exotics to introduce into Britain. So, the Botanical Magazine was initiated and it became "a botanical and publishing phenomenon".