A bumper crop of botanical art

Before the advent of photography, botanical art was vital to the correct recording and identification of fruit cultivars. Here at the library we have a great collection of fruit-related art

The Marie Louise Pear (weight 8 ½ oz) From the garden of Roger Wilbraham Esq at Twickenham. Signed: W.Hooker del 1821The RHS has always been ambitious. The founding fathers of the Horticultural Society of London, as we were previously known, declared in 1804 a desire to ‘support Horticulture in all its branches’ (pun intended? It's hard to know) and we’ve been doing nothing less ever since.

In those early days the value of botanical art was understood almost instinctively. Photography wasn’t in widespread use until the latter part of the nineteenth century, but across Europe talented artists had long been employed to accurately depict plants. So naturally once the Society started its work in earnest, researching and recording plants for the British gardener, amongst its earliest undertakings would be to commission artists to draw the fruits and flowers.

Plant illustrations appear tentatively in the Society’s Transactions from 1807 and by 1812 full colour pictures of fruit accompany descriptions of how best to grow them. One of the Society’s best known artists was William Hooker (1779-1832) who was renowned not just for his skill as an artist but as a passionate fruit grower and publisher. Hooker published and produced plates for three titles: Paradisius Londinensis, Pomona Herefordiensis and Pomona Londinensis, the latter two publications being concerned with fruit growing in Herefordshire and in the vicinity of London.

The Spring Grove Codlin, signed: W.H. 1809Hooker was commissioned by the Society’s Council to make a collection of fruit drawings, the earliest of which is The Spring Grove Codlin (1809) a variety of apple named by Sir Joseph Banks for one of the trees he found growing in his garden at Spring Grove.

The early forerunners are fascinating as many of the original drawings state the name and location of the grower. As the Society didn’t have gardens of its own at this time, we were keen to gather information on the plants being grown by members at the time. The Spring Grove Codlin, 1809 (above) turned out to be the preliminary drawing for a more detailed illustration finished in 1820 (below), as part of the series of commissioned paintings known as ‘Hooker’s Drawings of Fruits’.
The Spring Grove Codlin, signed: W. Hooker del. 1820These fruit illustrations typically differ in that they show the full fruit growing on the branch, with leaves and a cross section, to enable a clear identification of the specimen.

The paintings were then used as a record to try and help disentangle problems in plant nomenclature. During this period many new varieties of fruit were being identified but naming them often proved difficult if reference images were not available.

More information on the collections to be found in the library that relate to British fruit can be found in Brent Elliott’s ‘Studies in the history of British Fruit’. Part 2. Occasional Papers from the RHS Lindley Library. March 2012.

To make an appointment to see the original drawings please contact the library at [email protected]

*RHS members can borrow from the thousands of gardening books held in the Lindley Libraries – visit our online catalogue.
Even if you are not an RHS member, the Lindley Libraries are open to everyone and provide access to modern collections of books and journals on gardening and related topics. Our heritage collections of rare books, photographs, art and archives are accessible by appointment.

Get involved

The Royal Horticultural Society is the UK’s leading gardening charity. We aim to enrich everyone’s life through plants, and make the UK a greener and more beautiful place.