Antique Hand-Colored Botanical Prints: Collecting Copper Engravings Drawn by Early Botanists

Collecting Copper Engravings Drawn by Early Botanists

Antique hand-colored botanical prints from earlier centuries give collectors and homeowners an important part of natural history to preserve and a beautiful piece of art.

Euphorbia splendens, 1830’s, Hand Colour

The earliest botanical drawings were made for the study of botany. While the ancient Greeks were the first to record flora and fauna for their medicinal value, the most descriptive illustrations began in the 16th century as the study of plants intensified with exploration and discovery of new worlds. In the 500 years prior, botanical drawings were idealized with illumination rather than with scientific accuracy and methodology.

However, according to Jane Grigson’s forward to The Englishman’s Flora, the pharmacopoeia recorded by the ancient Greek physician, Dioscorides Anazarbeus, was still being used by apothecaries and botanists in the time of Queen Elizabeth 1.

Antique Hand-Colored Botanical Prints

Many of these early botanical prints were copper engraved on separate sheets of paper and tucked loosely into portfolio bindings. Some, like Basilius Besler’s Hortus Eystettensis in 1613, included 367 copper engravings and the total was reprinted 300 times. Besler had a small army of artists who painstakingly added the colors to the engravings by hand with fine water color brushes. This was an expensive endeavor.

Besler prints have been circulating for over 400 years, but there are still numerous prints that have survived time are on the market. Values range between $2 K and $10 K.

How to Authenticate Antique Botanical Prints

Antique botanical prints, as well as other antique prints, are not that difficult to authenticate. When the paper is held up to the light, linked chain lines or impressions become visible. This indicates the piece was printed prior to the 19th century.

Early paper and print makers used a watermark of sorts in the paper. They may have placed a coiled wire in the paper press as a maker’s mark. It could be an initial or a date and piece of wire or both. It’s easily visible with a jeweler’s loupe or when simply held up to the light. Not all antique prints have the watermark, so it’s important for new collectors to research before they invest in art.

Pierre Joseph Redoute Rose Prints

Perhaps the most popular of all hand-colored botanical prints are those of Pierre Joseph Redoute who published them in Les Roses in 1824. His rose illustrations have been printed and reprinted over the years and are seen behind frames in nearly every home decor shop in North America. His original prints were hand-colored engravings. These are still available and many can be found for $400 or less. Collectors should look for the watermarks and expect to find some minor foxing or brown spots.

Collecting Antique Botanical Prints

The World Wide Web has shown that early and antique botanical prints aren’t as rare in the marketplace as one would think, but they are certainly valuable with some prints selling for thousands of dollars.

Collectors of anything are passionate about their collections. With botanical prints they may seek out everything by botanists, Basilius (Basil) Besler, Friar Charles Plumier or Hans Weiditz of the 16th century or Carolus Linnaeus of the 18th century, whose system of classifying plants is still today’s standard among botanists.

If collectors aren’t seeking out particular names, they may be looking for those prints with fine detail and bright clear color in the pigments or they be seeking work from a particular school of botany, an era or a country of origin.

An interesting collection can include all criteria above, and it’s possible considering the large number of hand-colored prints available. These collections can be used for personal study or framed. Many early botanical prints were large or “folio” size, approximately 14″ x 20″ as a rough example. Sizes varied.

Where to Find Antique Botanical Prints

There are many dealers in antique prints across North America and most are easily found with simple internet searches.

Fine antique art auctions often have antique prints in their catalogs, but for the best deals, online auctions are a good source. 18th and 19th century antique botanical prints can be found on eBay for under $300.

Storing and Framing the Prints

Collectors who store their prints should separate them with acid-free paper or acid-free folders and store them carefully in acid-free boxes.

If framing the prints, acid-free mat and backing paper should be used along with ultra-violet proof glass in the frame.