Horticulturist and TV presenter Alys Fowler discusses a newly discovered copy of ‘The Besler Botanical’, an early 17th-century book documenting one of history’s finest gardens
Set to feature in Christie’s Books & Manuscripts sale on 13 July (estimate: £800,000-1,200,000), the 1613 publication was commissioned by the Prince Bishop of Eichstätt — credited with creating one of the earliest botanical gardens dedicated to flowering plants. The Prince Bishop’s castle was surrounded by eight separate gardens, each with their own staff, with plants from the Americas and the Ottoman Empire imported through Amsterdam, Antwerp and Brussels. ‘He was obsessed with gardens, and wanted to show the wealth of his plant collection,’ says Fowler.
The task of recording Eichstätt’s collection was given to Basilius Besler, a Nuremberg-based apothecary, who, Fowler explains, ‘did such a good job that the book is often known as The Besler, or Besler Botanical.’ The finished work depicts the flowers of more than 1,000 types of plant, shown life-size across four seasons.
‘It’s extremely rare,’ says Stefania Pandakovic, Christie’s specialist in the Books & Manuscripts department, of this previously unrecorded copy of the first edition, of which only 28 are known to exist — and only 14 of which are complete. It is, she explains, a ‘deluxe’ issue: a hand-coloured edition with no verso text, intended to reproduce the richness of the original as closely as possible.
Containing 366 plates, this huge book was intended to be published in 1612 — a leap year — providing an illustration for every day. ‘It’s clear the people who put this together cared passionately about their plant collection,’ Fowler concludes. ‘It really elevates the flower to its finest form’.