William Curtis the Botanist
William Curtis was born in Lenten Street, Alton on 11 January 1746. From an early age he developed a passion to study natural history. Following a local education, he moved to London in 1766 to become apprenticed as an apothecary. Soon however his interest in natural history became dominant, and eventually he gave up his practise to devote himself to this. In 1772 he was appointed Demonstrator of Botany to the Society of Apothecaries, at the Chelsea Physic Garden. His first publication was Instructions for collecting and preserving Insects and this was followed by many others. His life’s work Flora Londinensis was never a success. Being a lavish folio work which took many years to complete, it all but ruined him financially. Success came towards the end of his life when he started publishing his Botanical Magazine, a periodical which continues virtually unchanged to the present day.
The Botanical Magazine
In the late 18th century there was a great demand for literature on the vast number of plants which were becoming available to the British gardeners. There was exchange of material between enthusiasts and the seed catalogues of the day served to fire their enthusiasm. After his success with Flora Londinensis, William Curtis became the focus of this interest and met the demand of producing his botanical magazine. In William Curtis’s own words in the preface to the first issue:-
‘The Botanical Magazine’ owes its commencement to the repeated solicitations of several ladies and gentlemen subscribers to the author’s botanic garden, who were frequently lamenting the want to work, which might enable them not to enquire a systematic knowledge of foreign plants growing in their gardens, but which might at the same time afford them the best information respecting their culture’.
William Curtis was an active man, he became involved in many ventures, and at times struggled hard to meet his commitments. His correspondence concerning the magazine was enormous, and a list of authors of letters to Curtis is attached.
The first number of the Botanical Magazine appeared in 1787, and during William Curtis’s lifetime two thousand copies of each number were sold. The plant which was given the distinction of being the first figure was Iris persica, a rare and beautiful Juno iris from the Middle East. Although available in small quantities from specialist Dutch bulb growers today, it is notoriously difficult to cultivate. This does not agree with the 18th century experience. The magazine states that “like the hyacinth and narcissus, it will grow within doors in a waterglass, but stronger in a small pot of sand, or sandy loam.”
Following Curtis’s death in 1799, his son Thomas Curtis took over the Magazine. However, it was his nephew, a biographer, Samuel Curtis who really established the Magazine.
There were three stages in the production of a plate for the Botanical Magazine. First an artist produced a drawing or painting of the plant, a plate would then be produced by an engraver, and finally each plate was hand coloured by a colourist. On each plate is written the name of the artist, then ‘del’, then the engraver’s name followed by ‘sculp’. One of the two main artists involved in the earlier Botanical Magazine were Sydenham Edwards who was William Curtis’s main artist. He remained with the magazine until 1815 when, following a disagreement with Samuel Curtis, he started a rival production, The Botanical Register,.
James Sowerby (1757-1822) was the other principal artist. Although he was responsible for the first plate, his main claim to fame comes from work he did after the Botanical Magazine and he was not responsible for many of the illustrations.
The main engraver for the Botanical Magazine was Francis Sansom. Although he was responsible for a few drawings for Curtis, he was the main engraver for the Magazine.
Little is known of William Graves, except that he was responsible for the colouring of all the plates until 1815. Plates were hand coloured until as late as the 1950s. A team of young women were employed, each with a single colour to apply. This was a monotonous activity, and nowadays with the advent of good quality printing, hand colouring is no longer necessary.
Following Flora Londinensis, the Botanical Magazine and less successful publications such as Materia Medica and Linnaeus’ systems of botany, William Curtis had plans to produce a natural history of the British Isles. He made copious notes on many aspects of Britain’s natural history, and commissioned artwork for it from Sydenham Edwards, but it was never produced.
Brooklands’ in Lenten Street, Alton, where William Curtis was born on 11 January 1746. the house was built in 1702 by Nicolas Gates. The building has been re-named William Curtis House and is currently occupied by Headley Financial Services.
Ale jug: brown salt-glazed stoneware, hand-modelled hops, barley and cornucopiae of fruits and flowers: moulded inscription ‘W.G. 1781’: the head supporting the spout is believed to be a portrait of William Graves of Wandsworth (born c1754) “The constant undeviating friend and assistant of Mr Curtis,” one of the colourists of Flora Londinensis’, who married William Curtis’ niece, Mary. Height 22.2cm.
Goblet: brown salt-glazed stoneware: hand-modelled barley and wheat: gadrooned pedestal foot. Height 13cm: diameter 11.4cm.
Both pieces are so accurately observed they are believed to have been designed by William Curtis. The jug was left by the botanist to his brother Thomas, by 1878 it had passed to Samuel Curtis’ daughter, Harriet Fothergill in Jersey; she gave it to Albert Curtis of Staines where it was in September 1889; later it passed to his eldest son, Captain A C Curtis of Bovey Tracey, Devon who lent it with the Goblet to Alton Museum in 1951.
Not marked, probably made in Lambeth.
ACM 1951.265 AND 266