Antiques/collecting: The Flowering of a Rare Spirit

The Birmingham Post (England), December 13, 2003 | Go to article overview
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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.

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