Advances in Natural Science and Taxonomy

The desire to observe, denote, and categorise natural phenomena in the world around us — especially plants and animals in all their glorious and subtle variety — was a driving focus of the early modern period. This was driven in part by advances in skilled labour and technology, which permitted the production and wide distribution of ever-more-precise scientific illustrations; by the eighteenth century, copperplate engravings attained a level of sophistication that is almost photorealistic. These explorations of the natural world were also characterised by a burgeoning interest in taxonomy. In botany especially, it was not uncommon for authors looking to make their mark to devise substantially new taxonomies for their subject matter. Though the Linnean convention was eventually adopted, these early experiments in categorisation remind us that taxonomy is an iterative process to this day.

Boerhaave’s Historia Plantarum catalogue

Boerhaave’s Historia Plantarum is an exhaustive catalogue of the plants which were growing in the academic botanical garden of Leiden University during the early eighteenth century. This copy once belonged to the royal library of Louis XVI of France.

John Evelyn. Silva, or, a discourse of forest-trees

EVELYN, John. Silva, or a discourse of forest-trees, and the propagation of timber in His Majesty's dominions. ... In two books. (London, 1706). John Evelyn, a notable gardener, was also a significant diarist. The Silva was his masterpiece—a comprehensive exploration of the botany of trees and their practical and cultural uses. It was also among the first works of practical forestry, being concerned with the propagation of trees and the sustainable management of forests; this was driven in no small part by the enormous demand for mature timber generated by the semi-perpetual state of naval warfare between Britain and its numerous rivals. This 1706 edition of Silva was significant for its new set of copperplates, which depict the subject matter in vivid detail.

HUGHES, Griffith. The natural history of Barbados : in ten books. (London, 1750). A beautiful work of natural history, Griffith’s book explores the flora and fauna of Barbados. He includes not only terrestrial life, but also marine species such as crustaceans and coral. The book is lavishly illustrated with a series of copperplate engravings, each of which is dedicated to a different wealthy patron.

PARKINSON, John. Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris. (First edition; London, 1629). Parkinson, who served as Royal Apothecary to Charles I, was among the last of the great English herbalists. Somewhat unusually for an English herbal by such an august personage, the book focuses on practical hortology, with sections devoted to “the garden of pleasant flowers,” “the kitchen garden,” and “the orchard”. A planned fourth section, intended to enumerate medicinal plants, was eventually published separately as the Theatrum Botanicum. The title (“Park-in-sun’s earthly paradise”) is a Latin pun on the author’s name.

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