Nature Prints as Botanical Documents

Nature print of Cassia by Thomas Horsfield at the

Nature print of Cassia by Thomas Horsfield at the Academy of Natural Sciences of the Drexel University, Archives and Manuscript Collection #625

Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland are justly famous for their five-year exploration (1799-1804) of parts of South and Central America as well as the Caribbean.  They brought back thousands of plant specimens as well as rocks, fossils, and the remains of animals.  Also in the haul sent to Paris were over 200 nature prints that weren’t given much attention before the 21st century.  Even the two explorers said little about them in their journals and letters, though they did annotate them.  For several years after their return, Bonpland worked on the plant collection in conjunction with Humboldt and the German botanist Carl Kunth at the Natural History Museum in Paris.  In 1816 Bonpland decided to return to South America, taking the plant specimens with him; they were only returned to Paris 1858.  However, Kunth managed to catch up with Bonpland in La Havre before he sailed and retrieved six volumes of field notes and the nature prints.  Kunth used these reference materials in identifying some of the species Humboldt and Bonpland had discovered.  Before Kunth returned to Germany in 1829, he donated the prints to Benjamin Delessert, a wealthy amateur botanist, whose heir in turn gave them to the Institut de France where they remain.  They were highlighted in an exhibit about Delessert in 1993, and this was how the Austrian botanical historian H. Walter Lack came to know of them and write an article on them (2001).

It seems that Humboldt and Bonpland were driven to make nature prints because they lost so many herbarium specimens.  Lack quotes from a letter Humboldt wrote to the botanist Carl Willdenow in Berlin:

“Alas, almost in tears we open our plant boxes.  Our herbaria have the same fate lamented already by Sparman, Banks, Swartz and Jacquin.  The immense wetness of the America climate, the rankness of the vegetation, which makes it difficult to find fully grown leaves, have destroyed one third of our collection.  Every day we find new insects which destroy paper and plants.  Camphor, turpentine, tar, pitched boards, hanging boxes fixed on ropes in the open, all tricks devised in Europe fail here, and our patience has become tired.  After being absent for 3-4 months you hardly recognize your herbarium, you have to discard 5 out of 8 specimens (p. 220).”

Since the paper Humboldt and Bonpland used for printing had Spanish watermarks, they likely didn’t originally plan to make prints and didn’t take printing supplies with them, but bought some in the Spanish colonies they visited.  Though they were probably both involved in printing, Bonpland, whose specialty was botany, likely took the lead.  Most of the annotations are his, with a number in Humboldt’s handwriting.  The pair were among the first collectors to number their specimens and numbered the prints in the same series with the plants themselves.  The numbers indicate that prints were made over a long period of time—perhaps after a spate of specimens were lost their frustration level would again mount and lead to more printing.  Many of the prints are annotated by Kunth; he gave them determinations that were then published in the Nova genera et species plantarum.

As Lack notes at the end of his article, the use of prints by botanists remained an “isolated phenomenon,” but it wasn’t a unique one.  The American naturalist Thomas Horsfield made prints during the almost 20 years (1801-1819) he spent in Java as a surgeon working for the East India Company (EIO).  Collecting was his passion and his botanical prints were one manifestation of this.  I have written about them in a previous post, but they should be mentioned here for two reasons.  First, they are of amazingly good quality.  Roderick Cave (2010), an expert on nature prints, considers them among the best he has ever seen, which is high praise indeed.  One reason for the quality is that Horsfield used softer Chinese paper rather than firmer European paper.  Horsfield, or perhaps an assistant, inked both sides of each specimen, folded a large sheet around it, and burnished it from the back, making mirror-image prints.  One bound set of prints are at Drexel University’s Academy of Natural Sciences Library, and I’ve been fortunate enough to examine them.  Their delicacy and detail are exquisite, and the quality is consistent throughout the collection.  The book is accompanied by an index of the plants, most with at least a genus name given and in some cases the Javanese name as well; the arrangement is Linnaean.  This is one of three known copies; the other two are in England (Peck, 2014).

The other reason for mentioning Horsfield is that like Humboldt and Bonpland, he was driven to nature printing because of the difficulties in preserving specimens, though, like them, he sent thousands of specimens back to London, to his employer’s headquarters.  He eventually went to England and spent the rest of his life in the employ of the EIO working on its collections and writing up his results (Horsfield, 1990).  Along with John Bennett and Robert Brown, he published Plantae javanicae rariores (1838-1852) documenting his botanical discoveries.  The illustrations are in part based on the prints as well as on his specimens.  Here as with Humboldt and Bonpland, nature prints made a significant contribution to important works on exotic flora.  While this is only a drop in the ocean of botanical publications, it deserves attention.  In the next post, I’ll examine how botanical nature printing developed later on in the 19th century when it had its greatest influence.


Bennett, J. J., Brown, R., & Horsfield, T. (1838). Plantae Javanicae rariores. London: Allen.

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

Horsfield, T. (1990). Zoological Researches in Java, and the Neighboring Islands. Singapore: Oxford University Press.

Lack, H. W. (2001). The plant self impressions prepared by Humboldt and Bonpland in tropical America. Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, 18, 218–229.

Peck, R. M. (2014). Discovered in Philadelphia: a third set of Thomas Horsfield’s nature prints of plants from Java. Archives of Natural History, 41(1), 168–170.

The Nature Prints of Thomas Horsfield

Loranthus nature print from #625 in the Archives and Manuscripts Collection of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University

Loranthus nature print from #625 in the Archives and Manuscripts Collection of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University

Last summer, I visited the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, which is now part of Drexel University.  Of course, I stopped in the gift shop, and I was drawn to note cards with nature prints on them: it was the delicacy of the prints that had caught me eye.  The information on the back indicated that they were from a volume of nature prints in the ANS Library.  They were done by Thomas Horsfield (1773-1859) in Java in the early part of the 19th century.  I didn’t have time to look at them that day, but several months later when I was again in Philadelphia, I made an appointment to see the prints.  Needless to say, the originals are even more impressive.  They are very fine, with all the veins and even flower forms carefully delineated.  In an effort to find out more Horsfield and the prints, I recently looked at a copy of the 1990 reprint of Horsfield’s Zoological Researches in Java and the Neighboring Islands; it includes a biographical essay on Horsfield by John Bastin, Emeritus Reader in the Modern History of South-East Asia at the University of London.

Horsfield was born in Pennsylvania, studied with a pharmacist, and then received a degree in medicine from the University of Pennsylvania.  He served as surgeon on a merchant vessel that sailed to Java, and when he returned home, he decided to go back to Java to study its natural history.  In 1801, he equipped himself and when in Java he gained support from the Dutch government for his explorations.  Because of his medical background, his main interest was in finding medically useful plants, but he collected widely and studied the geology of the region as well.  Over time, he became more and more interested in animals, especially after the British under Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles took over the administration of Java and Horsfield received support from the East India Company (EIC).

When he left Java in 1819, he went to England to continue his natural history work for the EIC.  He worked on his collections and eventually served as curator at the EIC’s museum.  By this time he had also gained the interest of Joseph Banks who was impressed by Horsfield’s plant collection and by the nature prints of over 400 plants that he had produced.  In an earlier letter to Raffles, Horsfield had explained that since herbarium specimens often rotted in the tropics he decided to make prints as a way to document plant features.  He applied ink to both sides of the specimen, folded a thin sheet of Chinese paper around it, and then burnished it.  This gave surprisingly good print of both sides.  In fact, Roderick Cave, the author of Nature Prints, writes that these are some of the best prints he has ever seen.  So there was a very good reason they caught my eye in the ANS gift shop.  There are three known copies of the prints, one at the Natural History Museum, London, one at the British Library, and the ANS volume, which was purchased by a Philadelphian and given to the library (Peck, 2014).

Horsfield, T. (1990). Zoological Researches in Java and the Neighboring Islands. Singapore: Oxford University Press.
Peck, R.M. (2014). Discovered in Philadelphia: A third set of Thomas Horsfield’s nature prints of plants from Java. Archives of Natural History, 41(1), 168-170.

Detail of Loranthus nature print from #625 in the Archives and Manuscripts Collection of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University