Q) I found two old orchid prints at a yard sale recently. What can you tell me about them? Barbara K.
Hand colored botanical Illustration.
A) Long before modern photography and digital cameras, the watercolor artist made paintings of plants and flowers as references for new and interesting botanicals that were being discovered in foreign lands. The pictures were painted to the exact size and shape of the floral specimens and as close to the natural color as watercolor pigments allowed. The paper was hand-made from high quality animal skin called vellum. Reproductions were then created by engraving and the finished works sometimes hand-colored. These paintings became known as “botanical illustrations.”
Many watercolor artists appeared in Europe during the late 19th and early 20th centuries to meet the growing demand for botanical illustrations as newly discovered tropical plants found their way into European gardens and greenhouses. Although botanical illustration started as a means of identifying plants for horticultural purposes, watercolor paintings soon became popular with wealthy plant collectors who hired artists to paint not only their families but also their favorite orchids.
There were three truly grand illustrated publications on orchids that were marketed to the elite hobbyists in the late 1800’s - a time period known as the “Golden Age of Horticulture” in Europe:
First, there was The Orchid Album (1882 – 1892) which was a 10” x 12” monthly grouping of lithographs by English author Benjamin Samuel Williams (who would later write the definitive book on culture for this era, The Orchid Grower’s Manual in 1894). This glamorous collection was designed for “both the drawing room and the library” and was similar to today’s fancy coffee table orchid books. It included over 500 lithographs of the finest varieties of species as well as growing tips, native conditions, and botanical descriptions.
Three years later, Lindenia (1885 – 1906) was issued which was a little larger – 10 1/2” x 13 3/4” – and published in French by Jean Jules Linden – the owner of a Belgian orchid company, L’Horticulture Internationale. This set displayed over 800 fine, new, or rare orchids - four lithographs each month - with lengthy descriptions. An English language edition was later produced.
Three years after that, Reichenbachia (1888 – 1894) was introduced which was even larger – 16” x 21 ½” – and written in English, French, and German by Frederick Sanders of St. Albans England. These top grade lithographs were issued in four volumes – one every other year - and used as many as 20 coloring inks in production. They were dedicated to Queen Victoria, the Empress of Germany, the Empress of Russia, and Marie Henriette of Austria.
Complete sets of any of these publications are rarely found today but are sometimes listed at auction houses such as Christies and Sotheby’s. Individual pages are more common as they have been sold as framed art. The two prints found at the yard sale are actual pages from the original volumes of Reichenbachia - Tab #21 Oncidium Jonesianum and Tab #94 Odontoglossom Sanderianum (later reclassified as constrictum) – both South American species - and are a fantastic find!