An extremely rare volume from the early 19th century, intended to teach the leisured classes the art of watercolour painting, has been acquired by the University Library.

Miss Smith's Studies of flowers from nature is a copy-book, with two sets of plates, one coloured, and one containing only the aquatint outline.

Although it is one of a number of such volumes produced in the late 18th and early 19th century, the work is particularly distinguished by the high quality of its illustrations. Moreover, the University Library's copy is the only one with the outline plates coloured in, as intended, by its owner.

The prospectus for the volume explains that it was to be issued in parts. The first of these is listed as a new publication in the May 1818 edition of the Edinburgh magazine. It is likely that the work was finished by 1820.

A complete copy of the work cost five guineas, according to the prospectus. This would be equivalent to £4000 today, based on contemporary average earnings.

Only two other copies of the work are recorded in library collections. The Bodleian library has just one of the monthly parts, containing two flowers, whilst the University of Wisconsin holds a copy of the prospectus.

The dedicatee of the book, and head of the list of subscribers, was Princess Elizabeth, daughter of George III, who is listed as “Her Royal Highness the Princess of Hesse Homburg”. Roughly 80 others subscribed to about 100 copies of the work. They were mostly women, who were the intended audience.

The rarity of such volumes may be due to them being discarded once their plates were coloured in. Princess Elizabeth's library was sold at Sotheby's in 1863 and her copy was not listed in the catalogue, which perhaps suggests that she too had thrown it away.

The reproductions in the University Library's copy are of a good quality, though the owner may have lacked a fine-enough brush, since some of the veins are rather heavy.

The book contains details of the specific colours to use, as well as general advice about painting and drawing. Miss Smith recommends that “Great care should be taken to acquire early a habit of exactness in sketching”, and “When a flower requires two or three teints, care must be taken not to make the second too great a contrast to the first”. The flowers themselves “were selected from the botanic garden of Mr W. Crowder of Doncaster which abounds with rare exotics as well as herbaceous plants”.

The book provides a helpful technical record of the use of materials, as well. For example, when colouring in geraniums “a few drops of lemon juice must be used with the pink saucer”.

The fineness of the aquatint lines in the work has attracted particular attention and the technique itself is rather unusual. To produce an aquatint, marks are made on a ‘matrix', which is usually a piece of copper or zinc, capable of holding ink. This matrix is then passed through a printing-press, together with a piece of paper, to print the image.

The author is practically unknown, despite her artistic talents. A Miss J. Smith, who may be the same, provided an illustration for William Sole's Menthae Britannicae in 1798. Her plates there are black and white, as Sole had "always been of the opinion that good plates are injured by colouring".

The item was purchased last month and the University Library is an active collector of works with hand coloured illustrations. Over 300 such books were purchased in 1986 from John Harley-Mason, a fellow of Corpus Christi College and another 33 were given by his bequest in 2004. However, his collection specifically avoided botanical works.

Miss Smith's volume is not the only unusual botanical book acquired this year. Ansberque's Flore fourragère de la France ( was recently obtained. Its illustrations were produced by the 'phytoxygraphique' process. This involved the creation of a life-size image through the inking of the plants themselves, which were then pressed onto a lithographic stone. This, in turn, was used to print the illustrations.

The University Library is currently adding many such works to its Newton catalogue, which were considered to be insufficiently academic for the main catalogues.

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