Senate House Library treasures volume: featuring Greek flora

When John Sibthorp, Professor of Botany at Oxford, went to Greece in 1786 (and again 1794-5) his object was twofold: to study the flora of Greece, and to try to identify definitely all the seven hundred plants described in Dioscorides’s first-century Materia Medica, the primary work on herbal medicine from the ancient world. Only twenty-five copies of the first edition of Sibthorp’s posthumous Flora Graeca were ever printed; and so expensive was the sumptuous ten-volume folio work with its 966 coloured plates, one opposite each page of text, that even John Lindley, Assistant Secretary of Horticultural Society and the book’s final editor, could not afford a copy, but had to make do with the letterpress of those parts of the text with which he had been involved. The book cemented the reputation of its Austrian botanical illustrator Ferdinand Bauer, with Joseph Hooker calling Flora Graeca “the greatest botanical work that has ever appeared” (On the Flora of Australia, London, 1859).

Flora Graeca, vol. 1HFlora Graeca, vol. 1, p. 28

How the London Institution acquired its copy of Flora Graeca we do not know, as the work postdates the Institution’s printed catalogue of 1835. What we do know is that the University of London Library thought when it acquired the book that it was getting one of these twenty-five copies, a reasonable assumption on the basis of the title pages. In fact, the bookseller Henry G. Bohn purchased the copperplates and unsold sheets in 1845 and produced a reprint of forty copies, differing somewhat in the colouring of the plates (commercially prepared pigments having become available), but only reliably distinguished from the original by the watermarks. It is the reprint which is held at Senate House.

  

Flora Graeca, vol. 5

Flora Graeca, vol. 5

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