William Curtis


One of the most famous of English botanists, whose work is in the Roderic Bowen Library and Archives, is William Curtis (1746-1799), who, in 1777, brought out his very ambitious Flora Londinensis, a hugely impressive volume rich in excellent copperplate drawings of a large number of British plants. On the title page Curtis is described as ‘Demonstrator of Botany to the Company of Apothecaries’.

Though the scientific description of the plants is in Latin, the rest of the text is in English, and each species is given an English as well as a Latin name. Many of the drawings are unsigned but certainly William Kilburn, Sydenham Edwards, and James Sowerby were prominent among the artists, and F. Sanson did many of the engravings. This magnum opus, though it brought the author much acclaim, was a financial disaster and he was forced to abandon it unfinished and launch his Botanical Magazine which was an instant success and, amazingly, is still being published.

Curtis is also represented in the library by a modest work in two volumes called Lectures of Botany, dated 1803 and 1804. They are expertly illustrated by 95 coloured plates drawn by Edwards and engraved by Sansom, some plates showing whole plants, others the minutest parts of plants. Mosses, especially Hypnum proliferum, are very beautifully depicted.

The heartfelt comment Curtis makes in the preface that ’The botanist neither breathes the putrid air of the dissecting room, nor inhales the noxious effluvia of the laboratory; but, as he freely ranges the fields, all that can charm the eye or ear, bursts forth on every side and crowds upon his senses’ is illustrated by the title page vignette shown here.