Michaelmas Week 1: “The illustration and publication of Robert Morison’s History of Plants (1672–99)”

Sample of the talk that Scott Mandelbrote (History, Cambridge) gave on the 14th October  

Robert Morison engraving

Engraved frontispiece of the “History of Plants”, reprinted in the “Makers of British Botany” by Oliver Francis Wall (1913).

On 9 November, 1683, Robert Morison was knocked down by a coach in the Strand. He died the following day. At the time, Morison was both botanist to King Charles II and Professor of Botany in the University of Oxford, where he lectured regularly in the Botanic Garden. His appointment at Oxford derived from  an approach that he had made to John Fell in 1669, and his activities there were always linked to efforts to publish his work as part of the revival of the University Press.

Morison issued a specimen of his herbal in 1672, with a plan of his system of classification based on seed types, and illustrated with full-page engravings. These were mostly paid for by Oxford luminaries and had been engraved on copper by David Loggan, whom Fell had hired to provide illustrations for the University Press. As work progressed in the 1670’s, Morison depended more and more on migrant engravers living in London. He also sought subscribers from the members of the Royal College of Physicians and the Society of Apothecaries, and, with strikingly little success, from the new Royal Society. Morison’s ideas about the growth and classification of plants were widely discussed: the diarist and keen horticulturalist John Evelyn, for example, wrote about Morison’s discovery of the propensity of London Rocket to germinate among the ruins caused by the Great Fire of 1666. Part two of Morison’s intended History of Plants (the first volume to be published) was fully subscribed as well as extensively illustrated when it appeared from the Oxford press in 1680.

Morisonian Herbarium specimen

By permission of Stephen Harris, Department of Plant Sciences, Oxford: A specimen from the Morisonian Herbarium annotated by Jacob Bobart the younger

Morison’s early death, however, posed a serious threat both to the future of his project and to the nascent University Press, whose financial investment in the herbal seems unlikely to pay off if the book remained incomplete. Fell therefore commissioned the younger Jacob Bobart, superintendent of the Botanic Garden, to edit Morison’s work. He also oversaw the activity of the University’s engraver, Michael Burghers, in finishing off the copper plates, many of which had already been begun by Morison’s London engravers. The process was not aided by Bobart’s inability to write in Latin (the language of Morison’s learned herbal), and was held up by the ongoing quarrels between the University Press and the London Stationer’s Company, which represented the book trade in the capital. In the end, many subscribers died before they received the third part of the herbal (the second and final volume published) in 1699. The first part, dealing with trees, was never printed and there is little sign that Morison had progressed far with its preparation by the time of his death.

Morison’s widow (‘that sharp Gentelwoman’, as Thomas Tanner called her) kept up a running battle with the University over liabilities arising from the herbal. Their quarrel remained unsettled for more than a decade and a half after her husbands death, and formed the background for the growing realization that the herbal represented a financial disaster for the University Press.

By Scott Mandelbrote

A page from part three of Morison's History of Plants

By permission of the Codrington Library, All Souls College, Oxford: A page from part three of Morison’s History of Plants, showing a plate prepared by Michael Burghers


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