The Royal Horticultural Society’s Lindley Library in London is world-renowned for its fine old and rare books, with hundreds of years’ worth of horticultural knowledge and history crammed into a room no bigger than your lounge. However, if you live in the north of England you don’t have to venture into the big smoke to see some exquisite books packed with illustrations.
These beautiful treasures are tucked away in a room in Yorkshire’s RHS Harlow Carr Library. The Library’s grandly named Research Room contains old and rare books and periodicals that date from as early as 1636, and many have been part of Harlow Carr Garden’s book collection since its inception in the 1950s.
Treasures on display
With the recent purchase of a display case, library staff are now able to exhibit some of the usually-hidden wonders of the room. For example, illustrated plates from Curtis’ Botanical Magazine, compiled in the late 18th century, are still as vibrant and dazzling as they were when they were hand-coloured more than 200 years ago.
Inspiration when needed
Last month, the collection of Victorian fern books proved to be an inspiration to a group of artists who were taking part in an adult education course learning how to create linocuts. The group were shown beautiful examples of fern illustration, including those created by the ‘nature-printing’ technique. This method involved making an impression of a dry plant in soft lead, which was then used as a printing plate, transferring the image by electrotype to a copper plate.
A mine of information past
Also lining the walls of the room is a run of the Gardeners’ Chronicle. This magazine, founded in 1841, carried national and international horticulture news, as well as articles covering all aspects of gardening. Its popularity (some said its circulation exceeded that of The Observer, perhaps thanks to its international readership) meant that companies clamoured to advertise in its pages. Today, these adverts present a wonderful treasure-trove of how products used to look, and how they have changed. See, for example, these 1859 lawnmowers.
Our oldest item?
A 1636 edition of 'Gerard’s Herbal'. First published in 1597, this densely illustrated 'Generall Historie of Plantes' was a very popular work of reference, and the copy at Harlow Carr is an English translation by Thomas Johnson. The pages are peppered with woodcuts, most of which had originally been used for other books, as was common practice at the time. Some were first seen in Rembert Dodoens's 'Herbal' of 1554, which Gerard based his magnum opus on.
The Research Room is accessible on request, and do just ask! The librarians are happy to show you around and share with you some of the beautiful books within.
More about RHS Libraries
Exhibitions and events
The libraries hold exhibitions of photography, botanical art and more, along with talks and courses.
As well as books and periodicals, discover, art, photos and archives. Open to all.
Our libraries can help with your academic research and provide access to digital resources too. RHS members can borrow from the thousands of gardening books held in the Lindley Libraries.