Nature Printing in the 19th Century

3 Bradbury Fern Plate 1

Plate 1 from The Ferns of Great Britain and Ireland.

Another name for nature printing is self printing because it is the inked plant itself that makes the print, rather than an artist creating marks on paper, independent of the specimen.  However, ink isn’t necessary, sometimes light itself can work, as when a plant is set down on photosensitive paper and then exposed to light.  That was how Anna Atkins produced cyanotypes of algae such as the one above (Armstrong & de Zegher, 2004).  Her first book of these is argued to be the earliest publication of any form of photography (1843-1853).  Atkins produced 400 plates in 11 years, but the process she used required a unique exposure for each copy, so it’s no surprise that there are less than a dozen copies of this work (Bridson & Wendel, 1986).  Such a project was obviously labor intensive, and over the years several printers attempted to devise ways of increasing the number of prints from one plant.  As mentioned in the first post in this series, Benjamin Franklin managed to make impressions in soft lead, but the technique was still time-consuming and messy.  Roderick Cave (2010) describes this and many other attempts in his book on nature printing.

In terms of output, the most successful nature printing technique was that developed by Alois Auer, who became director of the Austrian National Printing Office in 1841.  He experimented with gutta-percha (a gum with some properties similar to soft plastic) to make prints of fish and then create an electrotyped copy from it.  Electrotyping means employing an electric current to lay down a thin layer of copper on the print.  The copper is set on a harder metal background and used for the actual printing; it is much more durable than the original print.  However, the gutta-percha prints often looked messy.  The next approach was to pass specimens through a rolling press between plates of polished lead and steel.  This made a cleaner impression in the lead, which could then be used to create an electrotype copy.  Several large-scale botanical projects employed the method, often using colored inks.  Some of the most successful were of algae.  As I have described in an earlier post, collecting and studying seaweeds were popular pastimes in the mid-19th century, particularly among women.  Anna Atkins’s work is one indication of this.  When properly prepared, either as specimens or nature prints, seaweeds were beautifully delicate.  Since they were plants without flowers, which often didn’t print well, the prints were satisfying even when produced in a single color.  However the Auer method was also used on higher plants.  The Imperial Printing Office’s largest project produced five folio volumes of nature prints of Austrian plants (Ettingshausen & Pokorny, 1856-1873).

Auer, who had a patent on his process, was not without competition.  Carlo and Agostino Perini  created a Flora of Italy, over a span of 11 years (1854-1865) using Auer’s method, but production costs were high.  Henry Bradbury, the son of an established British printer, asked Auer if he could visit Vienna and learn about the process.  Auer agreed and was apparently quite forthcoming in showing Bradbury how the printing was done.  Upon his return to England, Bradbury took out a patent on what he claimed was a different and better technique, but Auer argued that the process was essentially the same as that used in Vienna.

A great deal of acrimony developed between Auer and Bradbury, but in the meantime, Bradbury published a few of the most impressive works in the history of nature printing.  First there was A Few Leaves Represented by Nature Printing, a brief, relatively inexpensive folio to show off the method.  The Bradbury printing style accentuated the venation of the leaves, making them seem almost transparent, an attribute that many botanists saw as misleading.  The most spectacular Bradbury publication was the large folio format The Ferns of Great Britain and Ireland (see figure above).  I have seen a copy of Ferns in the library of the Delaware State University herbarium, and it is indeed a wonder to behold.  Like ferns seaweeds seem to lend themselves to the technique, and Bradbury created a multi-volume work on algae that is spectacular in its display of beautiful forms and colors, but wasn’t as popular as the fern book.  The seaweed publication marked the end of this particular chapter in nature printing since Bradbury committed suicide in 1860.

At least a few 19th-century botanists found nature printing a useful way to document plants in the field (see last post), and there were also a few who used prints in their publications.  Not surprisingly the latter were mostly Austrians who published through Auer’s Austrian National Printing Office.  Constantin von Ettinghausen was interested in paleobotany and employed the technique in his publications for over 40 years.  He found nature printing skeletal leaves a good way to compare living plants with fossils and used the technique in his publications for over 40 years.

Despite Austrian expertise in the field, the most massive nature printing project was produced in France.  Herbier de la Flore Française (Cusin & Ansberque, 1867-1876) ran to 26 volumes with over 5,000 plants, however the printing technique used for these books created what Cave calls “rather dull” plates (2010, p. 147).  He cites many other interesting types of nature prints, including their use in decoration during the height of another 19th-century plant-related fad:  fern mania.  This brings to the fore the aesthetic appeal of nature printing that becomes the dominant focus in 20th and 21st-century printing projects, which will be the subject focus of my final post in this series.


Armstrong, C., & de Zegher, C. (2004). Ocean Flowers: Impressions from Nature. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Atkins, A. (1843). Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions (5 volumes).

Bridson, G. D. R., & Wendel, D. E. (1986). Printmaking in the Service of Botany. Pittsburgh, PA: Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation.

Cave, R. (2010). Impressions of Nature: A History of Nature Printing. London: British Library.

Cusin, M. L., & Ansberque, E. (1868). Herbier de la flore française. Lyon: s.n.

Ettingshausen, C., & Pokorny, A. (1856). Physiotypia plantarum austriacarum: Vienna, Austria: Imperial Printing Office.

Perini, C., & Perini, A. (1854). Flora dell’Italia. Trento, Italy: Tipografia Perini.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s