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50 Books Plus Two:
A Special Collections Report from Stanley Ellis Cushing

The elegant tracery patterns of ferns were widely admired in Victorian Britain. Numerous household objects such as glassware, china, and textiles were decorated with fern motifs, and their cultivation, especially indoors in Wardian Cases and conservatories, led to a proliferation of books on ferns and their culture.

The Athenæum has a number of rare books devoted to the study and care of ferns, mostly dating from the middle part of the nineteenth century. One large folio, The Ferns of Great Britain and Ireland, has the intriguing phrase "Natureprinted by Henry Bradbury" lettered on its green morocco spine. Written by Thomas Moore and printed in London in 1855, it contains a scientific text and fifty-one plates, unusual in their accuracy and three-dimensional quality, depicting all the varieties of ferns native to the British Isles and Ireland. The images were created by an invention that utilized actual plants in the printing process. Around 1850 the Imperial Printing Office in Vienna, under the direction of Alois Auer, pioneered the process of pressing a dried plant specimen between a highly polished lead plate and a steel one; the resulting impression in the lead was electroplated to become an intaglio printing plate that was inked by hand. Printed in two colors on a thick sheet of soft paper that took the impression of the plant from the metal plate, the nature-printed image was even able to replicate the thickness of some stems and fronds.

Henry Bradbury, of the English printing firm of Bradbury and Evans, observed the method in 1852 and patented his version in 1853, initiating a spirited and acrimonious debate with Auer about who deserved the credit for development of the process. Because the process was expensive, it flourished only briefly, and Henry Bradbury, its most active exponent, committed suicide in 1860.

The Athenæum's copy of The Ferns of Great Britain and Ireland was part of a collection of manuscripts and books that belonged to the architect John Hubbard Sturgis (1834-1888), and they were given to the library in 1992 by his granddaughter, Mrs. Katharine Sturgis Goodman. John Sturgis was an architect who had lived in Boston as a boy but had continued his education in England and on the Continent when his father became a partner in Baring's Bank in London. He worked in Great Britain and also in Boston, where he had numerous commissions from the local aristocracy, who appreciated his taste for British style. He designed houses for Mrs. Jack Gardner on Beacon Street, Frederick Ames on Dartmouth Street in the Back Bay, and Edward N. Perkins on the shore of Jamaica Pond. Perhaps his most famous Boston commissions were the first home of the Museum of Fine Arts in Copley Square and the Church of the Advent on Beacon Hill. That his books and papers have found a home on Beacon Hill seems only natural, and they join Mr. Bradbury's other great publication, William Grosart Johnstone's The Nature-Printed British Seaweeds (London, 1859-1860), which already forms part of our Special Collections.

"Polypodium Dryopteris"

"Cystopteris fragilis"

"Polystichum Lonchitis"

"Lastrea foenisecii"

"Lastrea Filix-mas"

"Lastrea dilatata"


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Last Updated: August 13, 2001