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New Rare Book Acquisition

Posted On March 19, 2015 | 16:12 pm | by lainw | Permalink
An Eighteenth-Century Example of Nature Printing

The Rare Book Collection recently acquired a first edition of Botanica in originali pharmacevtica das ist: Lebendig officinal-kräuter-buch, published in 1733 by Johann Hieronymus Kniphof (1704–1763). As a fascinating experiment in capturing the likeness of a plant through the process known as nature printing, the book is important both to the history of plant illustration and that of printing practices. Nature printing can refer to a number of methods for producing an image from an actual specimen. Leonardo da Vinci, the consummate experimenter, developed a process that made use of lamp black. Kniphof’s work involved coating plants with printing ink and printing directly from the plant onto paper by means of a press. This made for a very limited print run, due to wear and tear on the specimens, a drawback that Benjamin Franklin turned into an advantage by using nature prints on currency to stymie counterfeiters.

By the nineteenth century, the Viennese printer Alois Auer had developed a method of nature printing that made use of the softness of lead plates. Dried plants were placed between a plate of lead and a plate of steel, exposed to pressure, and then removed; the lead would retain an impression of the specimen, and could be used to produce an electrotype plate for printing. This process was also used by Henry Bradbury in England.

The real strength of nature printing is in its ability to capture detail, such as the venation of leaves and the texture of roots and tendrils. This method of capturing a two-dimensional image from a three-dimensional object does not always do justice to plant parts, such as flowers and fruits, which may be one reason it has often been used for nonflowering plants. By adding coloration to the prints, details that are not captured by the printing process, such as sporangia on ferns and mosses, can be made more evident. Some copies of Kniphof’s work were distributed without color added, but the Dumbarton Oaks copy is colored throughout.

Kniphof’s Kräuter-buch is currently on display in the library as part of the exhibit A Collection of Ferns from the Dumbarton Oaks Library, where it can be viewed alongside Bradbury’s nature prints in The ferns of Great Britain and Ireland (1855).