GERARD, John The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

London, John Norton, 1597


FIRST EDITION. Large folio. Pp. (xx) 1392 (lxxii). Roman letter, indexes in Black letter and Italic. Title page engraving by William Rogers, woodcut arms of the dedicatee Sir William Cecil on verso. Hand coloured head and tail pieces and initials at dedication and forewords (possibly later), splendid brightly coloured portrait of John Gerard with gilding (possibly contemporary) by William Rogers. Text with c.1,800 woodcut illustrations of plants in contemporary hand colouring. Colophon within hand coloured typographical borders. Slight age browning, a little paint smudging, quite persistent light show through. A handsome and impressive copy, in heavy calf over boards, pastedown with leaf from John Ogilby’s 1660 Bible Vol 2. Richly decorated spine gilt, morocco label, repairs at head and tail and joints, a few scratches.

The monumental first published English botany. It contains 1,392 dense pages of intensely detailed descriptions and drawings of plants, each carefully coloured in this unusually splendid copy. Born in Cheshire, Gerard’s initial career path was in medicine where he apprenticed to the barber-surgeon Alexander Mason. During his studies he developed a tenement garden at Fetter Lane in Holborn, which is referred to frequently in this work. In this he nurtured precious rarities like white thyme and double-flowered peach. His success and skill led to plants being sent to him from across the globe. Rohde states: “One likes to think that Shakespeare must have seen his garden, for we know that at least for a time he lived in the vicinity. In those days two such prominent men could scarcely have failed to know one another” (p. 118).

In 1577 Gerard undertook a position in the gardens of Sir William Cecil (1520-1598), the dedicatee. Cecil was chief adviser to Elizabeth I and enormously influential in Tudor politics. The position was so significant that Gerard remained there for twenty years. He was also in charge of the garden at the College of Physicians. Gerard was, as well as a botanist, a skilled self-promoter, businessman and networker. Much evidence exists of him sending letters and applying for positions in order to better his social and financial standing. Indeed, he was not part of the prominent Lime Street naturalist community, and chose instead to promote his own ideas and methods. Socialising among aristocrats, he gained access to their finely worked gardens and nurtured them in return for exotic or expensive plants. His exchange networks eventually stretched as far as South America and the Middle East.

The Herball was originally conceived as a translation of the reputable Flemish work of Rembert Dodoens (1583). In fact, Dr Robert Priest, a contemporary of Gerard’s at the London College of Physicians, was originally commissioned to create the herbal instead of Gerard. He died before being able to finish the book, and Gerard took over, incorporating a great deal from Priest’s preliminary writings. Gerard added content from his own garden, as well as more exotic plants that he had acquired from places like North America. A significant inclusion on p. 781 is the first ever description of a potato in English (although he mistakenly states that they come from Virginia, not South America). Remarkably, he recommends them to be eaten with “oile, vinegar and salt”, showing an early variant of a seasoning combination much used today. Gerard allegedly used a great deal of material that wasn’t actually his own – the writings of L’Obel and Clusius feature yet are consciously disguised, and Gerard makes a point of understating Priest’s posthumous contributions to the book. Woodcuts were reused from early 16th century herbals by Mattioli, Dodoens, Clusius and L’Obel. The work was, thanks to Gerard’s ingenuity and business acumen, a phenomenal success. In fact, it became the standard reference book for budding botanists, and was a staple in aristocratic libraries. It contains almost 3,000 plants and their descriptions; the sheer size and ambition of the volume cannot help but impress. Extensive tables at the end provide useful appendages including a comparison of plants’ names in Latin and English and their uses and dangers. Rohde states, “His Herball, which was published in 1597, gripped the imagination of the English garden-loving world, and now, after the lapse of three hundred years, it still retains its hold on us” (p. 93).

William Rogers (1545-1604) is known as the greatest portrait engraver of the Tudor period, and was the first English craftsman to practice the art of engraving. The title page is listed in Johnson p. 52 and is signed by Rogers. It depicts a well-manicured garden as well as flora and fauna and figures undertaking various gardening tasks. Rogers engraved portraits of Queen Elizabeth I, as well as the family of Henry VIII and Emmanuel Philibert, Duke of Savoy. His success and reputation is epitomised by Francis Meres’ mention in his Palladis Tamia from 1558: “As Lysippus, Praxiteles, and Pyrgoteles were excellent engravers, so have we these engravers: William Rogers, Christopher Switzer, and Cure.”

Copies such as this were hand coloured to order for wealthy clients.

ESTC S122353; Hunt 174; Nissen BBI 698; STC 11750; Alden I 398; Rohde Ch. IV; Amber p. 108.
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