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

Nature printing and lithography

page 90

Nature printing and lithography

In 1876 Sir George Grey, who became Prime Minister in the following year, obtained the approval of the House of Representatives for funds to be spent on the production of a book on the native grasses of New Zealand, "with nature-printed plates and descriptions of each species." It was originally planned that the book would include "an essay on the grasses and forage plants likely to prove useful in New Zealand" and that this essay page 91 would be chosen from those submitted to a competition for which prizes would be awarded. However, it was pointed out that until an illustrated work on grasses was published "many would be precluded from joining in the competition" because they would be unable to accurately identify many grass species. James Hector, as director of the Colonial Museum, was given the task of supervising the production of the book, and he instructed John Buchanan to illustrate the grasses, natural size, by means of the technique of nature printing, and to prepare enlarged drawings of floral parts by means of dissections under the microscope. He was also asked to prepare a brief text to accompany each plate.

Nature printing resulted from experiments at the Imperial Printing Office, Vienna, and the first book to describe the process was published in 1853. It was based on the principle that if a rather flat object is placed between two flat surfaces, one harder than the other, and subjected to pressure, the object will become embedded in the softer one. With plant specimens, plates of lead and steel were used, and the plant remains were carefully removed from the lead, sometimes with the aid of a blowtorch. From this "negative" plate, with its impressed image of the plant, a "pos-tive [sic: positive]" Plate could be cast as an "electrotype". This had the outlines of the plant standing in relief above the general surface of the plate, forming the actual printing plate. A less sophisticated method was used by Buchanan for the plates of The Indigenous Grasses of New Zealand. The specimens of the various grasses were lightly inked and faintly impressed on the prepared surface of a lithographic stone. Details were filled in by hand. There was some delay in the preparation of the plates, "owing to the want of proper lithographic stones and other appliances, which could not be procured in the Colony". Buchanan's inked grasses still exist in the herbarium of the National Museum.

Lithography is a process that depends for its effect on the repellence between grease and water. A greasy image on the surface of a smooth Plate of limestone is first moistened and then inked. The image accepts the ink but repels the water, but those parts of the stone where the image is absent accept water and consequently repel the ink. The image can then be printed on paper by passing stone and paper through a press, which gives a picture in black on a white background. It became common practice to add the impression of another stone printed in straw colour to give a tinted background. Such a background was used in the first issue of Indigenous Grasses. The plates are of very high quality indeed — a tribute to John Buchanan's skill and to supervision by J. Earle, the Government Lithographer.