Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Joy of Old Books

I learned from Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature that her Potter grandparents gave her Sowerby’s British Wildflowers, published 1882.  Her copy, inscribed and dated 12 October 1884 is in the Beatrix Potter Collection at Daito Bunka University in Tokyo.  The problem, or joy, of Internet surfdom is that one can indulge one’s desires at the speed of the keyboard.   On to the Antiquarian Book Exchange, ABE.com, where bookseller Neil Summersgil from Lancashire posted the following:

Book Description: Imperial octavo, L, 186pp, 90 fine engraved plates, mostly hand coloured, illustrating 1780 flowers. Original green cloth, rebacked with the original attractive gilt spine laid down, sl spotting endpapers, minor toning to margins. Overall a Good solid copy.

Beatrix Potter's inscribed copy of Sowerby's at the Daito Bunka Reference Library
When the postman, well, postwoman, delivered it – thrilling.  I love opening book boxes, especially from England. So how did I use this book.  In her journal on Friday September 30, 1892 Beatrix sees a man by the roadside in Birnam and writes, "He was gathering a handful of purple devil’s-bit scabious in the ditch, and being already overladen with bundles, I thought him an enthusiast or intelligent herbalist according to the idiosyncracy of peripatetic natives."

Devil's Bit Scabious courtesy of WikiCommons

From Sowerby's Index of English names I learned that Devil’s bit is Scabiosa succisa with regular blue flowers (both male and female parts).  A common wildflower, about a foot tall, it blooms from August to October, matching the date of the Journal entry.  There is an engraved, colored plate that includes the illustration of the plant.

Sowerby was John Edward Sowerby, who lived from 1825-1878.  He was third generation of a dynasty of London botanical artists, starting with grandfather, James, original author of English Botany, and father Charles, a founding member of the Royal Botanic Society.   BTW English Botany -  a sort of family business - was first put out by his grandfather in 1790 and then in a new edition by his father, Charles.

John continued to update and reissue the family book, English Botany, in monthly installments from his shop in Lambeth, and illustrate many books with Charles Johnson:  The Ferns of Great Britain, British Poisonous Plant, The Grasses of Great Britain, The Useful Plants of Great Britain   But my favorite title with Sowerby illustrations is M. C. Cooke’s Rust, smut, mildew & mould; an introduction to microscopic fungi.

If you would like to see these books, but don’t have room on your bookshelves, you can use the internet archive of the Biodiversity Heritage Library.  It has page-by-page scans that you can view online or download.   But there is something about holding the book itself.

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