The beauty of antique plant catalogues

I just finished a late-Victorian garden design for a class. Part of my research included reading primary sources, such as William Robinson's The English Flower Garden, and digging up antique nursery catalogues to determine which plants and their varieties were available and popular in the late 1800s. 

In the RBGE library, one of my happy places on Earth, I found a catalog from the Veitch nursery. According to the Vietch Family History site, in 1771 a 19-year old Scot named John Veitch traveled to England and by 1808 had begun a nursery. John's son, James, and his son grew the nursery and purchased its Chelsea location in 1853. The dynasty carried on through the height of the Victorian plant collecting craze, with the nursery sending 23 collectors around the globe. These plant hunters returned with many of the specimens you'd recognize in a British garden today. One such treasure is the beautiful Davidia involucrata, located in China by Ernest Wilson. Despite being shipwrecked on the way home to England, Wilson managed to save the Davidia seeds. The Veitches were eventually responsible for introducing 1281 plants which were either previously unknown or newly bred varieties. Horticulture would not be the same without this impressive family. 

What impresses me just as much as their story is the beauty of their nursery catalogues, which are illustrated with detailed engravings and, in the late 1800s, very few colour images. In today's era of almost-instant digital photography and computer-aided layouts, the idea of engraving a catalogue is mind-boggling.

I am particularly drawn to these images of gardening tools, which are so beautifully composed that I'd happily hang them on my wall as art. 

I also enjoy this ad for the brand-new 'Frogmore Selected' tomato, though as I am used to growing 7-foot tall tomatoes outdoors with barely any attention at all, their meticulous indoor cultivation in Britain still strikes me as odd. The testimonials below the images are from the leading horticultural publications of the day, including Joseph Paxton and friend's 'Gardeners' Chronicle' and William Robinson's 'The Garden,' two magazines I've spent countless hours investigating during my studies at RBGE. 

This ad reminds me of one of my favorite watercolours by Eric Ravilious, 'The Greenhouse: Cyclamen and Tomatoes' (1935), which is now in the care of the Tate gallery. Clearly Ravilious too was moved by the beauty of full-to-bursting glasshouse.