One of my favorite things about my job is cataloging our rare book collections because I never know what I’ll find when I look between the covers of the books that cross my desk. I’ve cataloged hundreds of early print titles in my career as a Special Collections librarian and I do so love the aesthetics of the hand-press printed book…the texture of the paper, the detail of the type design, the layout of the title page, and the simplicity of the overall design. However, when I do work with books from the nineteenth century, I’m often most drawn to totally different aspects of the book as object…such as the publishers’ bindings and the placement and quality of the illustrations.
One of the most attractive nineteenth century books I’ve encountered in Miami’s collections is The Flowers Personified, the 1849 American edition of the famous French illustrator J.J. Grandville’s Les Fleurs Animées. Miami’s copy of this edition also features the original and beautifully ornate leather publishers’ binding, as issued by R. Martin, the New York publisher.
Translated from the French by Nehemiah Cleaveland, the two volume text consists of selections of musings on the history and meaning of a variety of flowers by Alphonse de Candolle, Taxile Delord, and Alphonse Karr.
The accompanying illustrations by Grandville, engraved and hand coloured by J.N. Gimbrede, are the highlight of this volume. The illustrations of women as flowers personified, clothed in courtly fashions blended with petals and leaves, are exquisitely rendered and have both a fairy-like quality and a tongue-in-cheek playfulness about them that is captivating. I especially enjoy the gothic feel of the “Poppy” putting several crickets to sleep and the majesty of the “Rose” with her beetle subjects kneeling before her.
J.J. Grandville (1803-1847) was better known for his caricatures of French society, specifically his depictions of animals dressed in human clothing which first appeared in Les Métamorphoses du Jour in 1829. This motif is revisited in the inclusion of “The Ass in the Lion’s Overcoat” in his interpretation of the “Thistle”.
Many threads of nineteenth century social, cultural and book history come together in this work: the rise of leisure reading, especially by women, a growing middle class and consumer culture, technological advances in book illustration and production, and the tension between scientific rationalization and the Romantic movement of the first half of the nineteenth century. This gift book is also an example of floriography, or the language of flowers, which was incredibly popular during the Victorian period. Gift books were heavily illustrated nineteenth century books published around the holiday season which were purchased and then given as gifts. We have quite the collection of Victorian gift books and literary annuals here in the Walter Havighurst Special Collections. Imagine receiving this gorgeous book in your Christmas stocking!
Special Collections Librarian