T&S Home Features

Timeless: Botanical Prints

The end of spring and beginning of summer is the lushest time of the year for color in the Midwest. After a gray and gloomy winter, bright colors give the hope of renewal. Thankfully, for centuries, artists and botanists have recorded the beauty and biology of the plant world. A graphite sketch or a fine hand-colored botanical offers the viewer a look at the detail of an individual species. Botanical illustrations are the combination of science and art. We must not discount these drawings for their scientific use, as they were valuable in the progression of medicine.

Until the 18th century, botanicals were colorless. Artists then began to color them by hand, generally with watercolors, which increased the value of the pieces several-fold. An exception took place in 1613 when Hortus Eystettensis was published with the works of Basilius Besler. A few of the plates were hand-colored, but the remainder of the volume was not. These are very rare and valuable today. Some of the uncolored works have been colored in modern times, but not in the manner of Besler.

Later, metal plates were used to color the prints. At times, these prints also were enhanced with hand coloring to finish them with a bit more detail. The cost to publish a ‘book’ was quite extravagant. For example, Mark Catesby’s Natural History took 18 years to complete and was known as one of the most expensive sets of the 18th century. As a result, only the wealthy really had access to this type of art.

There were several processes by which this art was produced, among them aquatint, chromolithography, engraving, etching, lithography, mezzotint, original print, stipple, woodcut and wood engraving. As printing inventions became more available, mass production could replicate these images faster.

In valuing and dating these pieces, it is important to also take into consideration the type of paper used for the print. It has progressed from laid paper dating before the 19th century to pulp paper that came into existence in the mid-19th century. These marks require a magnifier to identify the type of paper used for printing the botanical.

Today, economical printing processes mean you don’t need a vast fortune to appreciate the art of the botanical. For serious collectors, there are rare and pricey options to consider, but it has been my observance that in the last five years, even good antique botanicals can be purchased for almost nothing. When Mario Buatta, the ‘prince of chintz,’ was all over the pages of Architectural Digest in the 1980s, he glorified the botanical print in art, fabric and wall coverings. This craze created a rise in the popularity and value of hand-colored botanical prints. Now, many of those same prints are worth half of what was paid for them in the ’80s.

The late Arlene Brilliant of Brilliant Antiques in Clayton sold the most fabulous framed, mostly English botanicals available in St. Louis. They were a prize to own. Sadly, only a few admirers remain.