Antiques/collecting: The Flowering of a Rare Spirit

The Birmingham Post (England), December 13, 2003 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Antiques/collecting: The Flowering of a Rare Spirit


Byline: Richard Edmonds

I the annals of collecting, antique flower prints have always held a prominent place. These things are available today at all kinds of prices from pounds 20 for Victorian examples, but getting steadily more expensive as you go back in time.

During the 17th and 18th centuries collectors found delight in their great gardens, furnishing them with plants brought from distant parts of Europe, Asia and the New World.

Naturalists and botanists brought back seeds and specimens and these were worked up by artists, set onto a copper plate then printed in limited hand-coloured editions and often the work of nuns.

They sold like hot cakes because the basic idea was snobbish and that has always appealed to the collector. The idea was to hang your prints in the sitting room while putting the latest treatise on botanical discoveries on your bookshelves. It all increased your reputation as a person of consequence in a period when knowledge was taken seriously. Obviously, it also let the world know that you could afford the best.

But among the greatest of the travelling botanists/artists was Maria Sybilla Merian who emerged as an eminent student of botany and insect life.

In fact, Merian's New Book of Flow-ers originally published in 1680, continues to be a source of fascination to this day. It has appeared already in a modern facsimile and has been reviewed in these columns. I have never heard of the original book being offered but it is no doubt a treasured item in any library which has a copy in its holdings.

Maria Sybilla Merian was born in Frankfurt in 1647 and fine prints and botanical skills were no doubt in her blood, since she was the daughter of the famous publisher and engraver Matthaus Merian the Elder, a printer whose seminars and sale exhibitions attracted scholars and collectors from all over Europe, anxious to purchase the best of prints which represented the state of the art for 17th century printing skills.

At a period when women were regarded merely as goods and chattels -at least in the earlier part of the 17th century when the subjection of women by males was considered the norm, Merian managed to overcome, by her sheer artistic talents, the social limitations of her time.

She divorced her husband in 1685 -something scarcely heard of in England at that time -and she established a separate household bringing up her daughter (who later travelled with her mother to the tropics) single-handedly. What is even more extraordinary is the fact that Merian travelled fearlessly on dangerous and lengthy expeditions to Surinam in South America, enduring heat, the dangers of the South American jungles (without the special clothing and protection a modern traveller would insist upon) and all this in order to study at first hand the local flora and fauna. Plants were her objective and she seems to have placed little emphasis upon the native population who she must have met.

In later years, this amazing woman opened and tutored art classes for daughters of the wealthy German middle-classes. She taught young women the arts of painting and drawing, and finally, possibly to show that a female divorcee could thrive in a man's world on equal terms, she opened up her businesses by selling artists' materials to those who joined her classes while at the same time publishing and marketing her own marvellous drawings and prints.

The continuing respect for Merian's work was borne out recently by a Sotheby's sale in New York of works by this astonishing woman. The two drawings above appeared on June 20 in a sale which did very well of the botanical library of the late Michael Kuse.

Three illustrations from Merian's book on the metamorphosis of insects from both Europe and Surinam, whetted the appetite in the sale room and the book itself made $95,000 -but remember this was obviously a remarkable book and eagerly sought after by both wealthy collectors and great libraries.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Antiques/collecting: The Flowering of a Rare Spirit
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?