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Speaking Picture Gardens

The emblem is thought to have its roots in the impresa; that device by which people of wealth created a peculiarly personal mythology by selecting an image and a corresponding motto to represent their character, personality, or aspirations.

In the 1530s Andrea Aliciato, a Milanese jurist, extended the impresa’s combination of visual and textual symbolism to general and societal, rather than personal themes in his Emblematum liber, a book of 'speaking pictures'. By the end of the 16th century emblem books were being composed and published throughout Europe, and had become an important means of disseminating the ideals of Renaissance society.

One of the most popular of the English emblem books was George Wither’s A Collection of Emblemes (1635), targeted at the new middle classes with a strong emphasis on images and mottoes that encouraged thrift, endurance, diligence, and honesty.

It is the engravings of the 'speaking pictures', not the explanatory prose, that are of the most interest to garden historians.

The emblem books reflected the material culture of their time, and the detailed engravings found in Wither’s Emblemes are a fascinating microcosm of period costume, architecture, activities, and especially gardens. Because many of the emblems are portrayed in an outdoor setting, around them can be seen garden structures such as arbors and trellises, formal planting and bedding schemes, fountains, seats and statuary. Practical horticultural practice is evident in the edgings and enclosure of flower and vegetable beds as well as the presence of laborers who are engaged in plowing, planting, harvesting, and tending. Even the social use of the gardens is visible, as the backgrounds are peopled with characters strolling, eating, flirting, playing at sports and listening to music.

The speaking pictures also provide inspiration for the modern gardener seeking to introduce meaning into their landscape: the ivy growing round the obelisk symbolizing weakness supported by strength, and what is more beautiful than the tree that symbolizes a patient heart?

View the whole poesy text associated with the speaking pictures at The English Emblem Book Project of the Penn State University Libraries' Electronic Text Center. Kudos to them for making Withers, and many other emblem books, available online.

Printing from the Garden, Then and Now

"Capturing the exact details of a plant or insect by printing directly from the natural object has been a goal of printers for hundreds of years.

Eighteenth century attempts to print directly from dried plants failed because the material was too fragile to withstand the printing process. In the nineteenth century, printers realized that they could first impress the object into another, harder material which could then be used to make the printing surface. Wood, softened by steam, and various types of metal were used to make a mold from the plants.

A successful process was developed in 1853 by Alois Auer, Director of the Government Printing Office of Vienna, and brought to England by Henry Bradbury. Termed "nature printing," the process involved passing the object to be reproduced between a steel plate and a lead plate, through two rollers closely screwed together. The high pressure imbeds the object--for example a leaf--into the lead plate. When colored ink is applied to this stamped lead plate, a copy can be produced. Several colors could be applied individually, by hand, to appropriate areas of the plate and all colors printed together from one pull of the press.

Very few books were actually printed by this method during the nineteenth century, with Henry Bradbury continuing to be the leading proponent. The Ferns of Great Britain and Ireland, published in 1857 and The Nature-printed British Sea-weeds, published 1859-60 are the primary examples of the process. Both books are scientific in approach and include engraved diagrams in addition to the nature printing. The process was ideal for showing the thin two-dimensional fronds of ferns and seaweed, but less successful with more fleshy plants. Bradbury's death in 1860, at the age of twenty-nine, seeded to end major interest in the process.

Also referred to as "nature printing" was a different process used specifically for making impressions of butterfly wings. In 1731, The Art of Drawing described a process for sandwiching butterfly wings between two pieces of paper and, by exerting pressure through a press, producing the colored image of the wings. Similar methods were employed at the end of the nineteenth century. The most successful was As Nature Shows Them: Moths and Butterflies of the United States, published in Boston in 1900 by Sherman F. Denton..

[from an interesting exhibit with alas, only a single photo (above) but a good bibliography, at the University of Delaware library]
[Authentic 1881 instructions for nature printing from the Household Cyclopedia of General Information are conveniently online. ]

Information about contemporary nature printers can be found at the nature printing society, source of the above work by Renata Sawyer.

Garden Bookcases

from 'Patio Gardens', by Helen Morgenthau Fox, 1929:

"In Spain there is a unique garden ornament not found in any other lands; this is the out of door bookcase. They are four and a half feet high and less than two feet wide. These bookcases are placed in the public parks.

The bookcases are tiny and completely faced with tile. They look like jewel caskets, and if they are deep enough to set the books far back they could be used in rainy lands, too, and would be handy places in which to keep the garden records and plans as well as essays and poems for the bookish gardener who never likes to be too far from his favorite authors. No less an authority than Monsieur Forestier told me that there is the record of but one theft from the bookcases, and that of a magazine.

In the exposition grounds at Seville, there is a bookcase dedicated to Cervantes in a little square to itself. It is surmounted by a brightly colored porcelain statue of Don Quixote on Rosinante..."

[Source of the above photo is a short post at the NYT blogs on park bookcases, with a more useful discussion in the comments about honor-system libraries and etc., both in the US and abroad. ]

Japanese Bonsai, 1848

From the special collections of the National Agriculture Library of the US Department of Agriculture, beautiful images of Japanese bonsai from two 1848 volumes entitled, Tokaido Gojusan-eki Hachiyama Edyu.

I've never seen snow bonsai before...

The USDA library also has digital images from several important botanical volumes, and prints available for purchase.

I could do this! The Home Depot sculptures of Stefanie Nagorka

From the New York Times:

"In spring 2002, the sculptor Stefanie Nagorka was walking the aisles of Home Depot in Clifton, looking for cinder blocks and pavers to use in her next sculpture. Ms. Nagorka, who lives in Montclair, was losing her Manhattan studio (and lots of storage), so to determine exactly how many blocks she needed, she built the sculpture in the store's aisle and photographed it. "I looked at the photos when I got home, and had an "ah-ha" moment," she said. "I could build the thing and not own the blocks. That I had recorded this with my camera was enough." Ms. Nagorka has built many sculptures since then in the aisles of home improvement stores in 27 states as part of her "Aisle Studio" project..."

A sculpture like this will be my winter gardening project...

How to Grow Cabbages and Cauliflowers Most Profitably

Those inclined towards horticultural and agricultural history will be pleased to find a very thorough bibliography devoted to the History of the American Seed and Nursery Industry and Their Trade Catalogs, compiled by the Smithsonian.

[The 1889 pamphlet of the title is available at Savoy Books, purveyors of antique agricultural manuscripts. It includes two prize-winning essays from a contest sponsored by Burpee, supplemented by recipes for cabbage and cauliflowers by S. J. Soyer, chief cook to the Royal Danish Court. ]
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