If, thirty years ago, with limitless wealth at your disposal, you had decided to form the world's best collection of books on naval architecture, you would have been told that there was one book you could never hope to acquire, Diego Garcia de Palacio's Instruction Nauthica, a key book on the subject, printed (unexpectedly), in Mexico City in 1587. There were only four copies known, and all in institutional libraries or equally secure collections. Yet in 1974 no less than two of those copies came to the market. It is, looking back, rather the same with books on botany, horticulture, and indeed natural history generally. If far from unregarded, few were sufficiently sought after to command high prices, with the result that they stayed where they were, known to those who read Nissen's learned pages, but not much seen.
Then, in little more than a decade, the situation completely changed. If one event can, with hindsight, be seen as the cause, or at least the fulcrum, of this change, it was one of the Knowsley Hall sales at Christie's, in June 1971. For several generations, successive Earls of Derby had been distinguished naturalists or collectors of specimens of all sorts; they had bought, new, all the major books in the field, and the depth, as well as the wealth, of their collection was a revelation. The sale had been preceded by the smaller but (in terms of colour-plate books) equally grand collection of the King of Belgium (Sotheby's, June 1970), and it was succeeded by another remarkable English country hourse collection, that of the Brownlow family at Belton Hall, also at Sotheby's in November 1971.
If, besides the availability of books of this quality, one other factor was responsible for the change of taste, it was Wilfred Blunt's pioneering The Art of Botanical Illustration (London, 1950), which was able, through then novel colour reproduction, to reveal something of the splendour of earlier botanical illustration to a wider public. But, if public interest was now engaged, it was a single prescient collector, Alastair McAlpine, who realised the opportunity that these sales offered. He consistently outbid stout opposition from the book trade, which realised as clearly as he did the nature of these opportunites but were hampered by the then accepted norms for the prices of such books. McAlpine was not so inhibited, and the prices that he paid, castigated as mad at the time, in fact established new norms.
McAlpine himself was the first to test this fact, and the prices paid for the books that he sold two years later (Christie's, May 1973) revealed that the market as a whole had adjusted to the new valuations. A more substantial test came with the sale of the Arpad Plesch Foundation's books in three notable sales at Sotheby's between June 1975 and March 1976. The catalogues (by John Collins) set a new standard of scholarship in the description of botanical books; not only the great colour-plate books, but the landmarks of scientific study of botany, notably the impact of Linnaeus, were recorded with a new precision and sense of continuity. Here, too, there was another landmark to help set the whole range of such books in perspective, Blanche Henrey's Horticultural and Botanical Literature, published in the same year as the Plesch sale. Again, in the next three or four years, other substantial sales, the Linnean Society's at Sotheby's in July 1979, and the New York sale of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society in October 1980, reinforced not only the prices, but the new availability of books in a field more thoroughly charted than ever before.
Among those who profited from the new profusion of books were the brothers de Belder, not least from the chance to acquire the vast collection of the Horticultural Society of New York, the bequest of Kenneth Kent Mackenzie in 1934. This is not the place to evaluate all they did and sought to do for the study of botany in Belgium, nor to expatiate on the sad circumstances that enforced the sale of the great collection of books that will be their permanent monument. The Robert de Belder collection was bought by Bernard Quaritch who, realising to the full the desirability of preserving the collection as a whole, did their best to sell it en bloc. It was only after every attempt to achieve this had failed that they decided to sell at auction the major illustrated books, a fraction of the whole but the largest part of its value. This sale again set an entirely new standard for the prices of such books; the interest evoked by the McAlpine sale half a generation earlier was now multiplied three, four, even ten times.
There was one providential result of the de Belder sale: its success stimulated one of the major purchasers to unite a substantial number of the illustrated books with the great mass of de Belder's technical and historical books, some, if less spectacular, of the greatest rarity. This event (achieved by a private treaty sale) forms the nucleus, but only the nucleus, of the collection offered now, with many other notable titles added in the intervening years. There are, indeed, some of the greatest monuments of botanical illustration, Elizabeth Blackwell's Curious Herbal 1737-9, (lot 8) and Christopher Jakob Trew's augmented edition 1747-73 (lot 9) with his own Plantae Selectae 1750-92 (lot 144) and Plantae Rariores 1763, (lot 145), Dodart's Mémoires pour servir à l'histoire des plantes 1676 (lot 36), an extraordinary collection of the great Austrian botanists, Jacquin father and son (lots 72-82), Kniphof Botanica in originali seu herbarium vivum 1757-64 (lot 86) and Knorr Thesaurus rei herbariae 1770-2 (lot 88), Redouté's Les Roses 1817-24 (lot 123) with the extraordinary copy of L'Héritier de Brutelle Stirpes novae 1784-91 with 4 watercolours by Henri-Joseph Redouté (lot 96), both issues of Robert's beautiful Estampes pour servir à l'histoire des plantes (lots 37 and 38), a signed copy of Seba Locupletissimi rerum naturalium thesauri...descriptio 1734-65 (lot 137), and Sibthorp Flora Graeca 1806-40 (lot 138) and Ventenat Jardin de Malmaison 1803-5 (lot 148).
Besides these are famous illustrated books from an earlier age, Sweerts Florilegium 1631-47, a coloured copy (lot 143), another, signed by the colourist, of Pena and De Lobel Nova Stiripium adversaria 1576 (lot 101) and Collaert Florilegium, 1590 (lot 25) a notable rarity. Beyond these stretch the earliest monuments of woodcut illustration, Bock Kreutterbuch 1546 (lot 202), Dodoens' Cruijdeboeck 1552-4 (lot 39), Fuchs, the first edition of De historia stirpium 1542 (lot 48) and later editions, Lonicer Naturalis historiae opus novum 1551-5 (lot 484) and Mattioli's Dioscorides 1544 (lot 498), again with later editions. The Hortus sanitatis is represented by the editions of Prüss, Strassburg, c. 1499 (lot 68) and Venice, 1511 (lot 69).
The early vernacular floras are included with Le grant herbier en francoys 1533-4 (lot 60) and the The grete herball 1529 (lot 59), the ancestor of Turner A new herball 1551 (lot 146), Gerard's Herbal, here in both 1597 (lot 53) and 1633 (lot 54) editions, the latter in contemporary morocco with the arms of Charles I, and of Parkinson Theatrum botanicum 1640 (lot 115). The English tradition continues with Blackwell, Hill The British Herbal 1756-7 (lot 62) and The Vegetable System 1759-86 (lot 64), Martyn Historia plantarum rariorum 1728-38 (lot 105), a landmark too of early colour-printing, Curtis Flora Londinensis 1835 (lot 32) and Lindley Collectanea botanica 1821 (lot 98).
There is a wonderful range of local floras, including Hoffmannsegg and Link Flore Portugaise 1840 (lot 67), Jacquin's Austrian collections, already mentioned (lots 72-82), Kops Flora Batava 1800-1934 (lot 89), Paulli Flora Danica 1648 (lot 116) and Waldstein Descriptiones...Plantarum rariorum Hungariae 1802-2 (lot 150). The great botanical collections are depicted in Bauer Delineations of exotic plants...at Kew 1796-7 (lot 5), Commelin Horti Medici Amstelodamensis...icones 1697-1701 a coloured copy, (lot 28), Schrank Flora Monacensis 1811-18 (lot 134) and Willdenow Hortus Berolinensis 1806-16 (lot 153).
The description of exotic plants has been a continuing feature of botanical literature, well represented here. Bauer Illustrationes florae Novae Hollandiae 1813 (lot 4) is accompanied by Buc'hoz Collection précieuse...des fleurs...dans les jardins de Chine 1776 (lot 17), the imperial copy of Humboldt and Bonpland Voyage aux régions équinoctiales du Nouveau Continent 1805-34 (lot 71), with the Vues des Cordillères 1870 (lot 156), and La Pérouse Voyage...autour du monde 1797-1808 (lot 157). Ledebour Icones plantarum novarum...floram rossicam illustrantes 1829-35 (lot 93), Rheede tot Draakestein Hortus Indica Malabaricus 1678-1703 (lot 127), Rumpf Herbarium Amboinense 1750-5 (lot 131), and Sloane Voyage to the Islands of Madeira...and Jamaica 1707-25 (lot 139), are famous monuments of other great botanical explorations.
Here, too, are the great monographs, Allen Victoria regia 1554 (lot 2), Andrews Coloured...heaths 1794-1830 (lot 3), Berlèse Iconographie du genre Camellia 1839-43 (lot 7), Bonafous Histoire...du Maïs 1836 (lot 11), Bulliard Histoire des champignons with the Herbier de France 1780-1809 (lot 20), Host Salix 1828 (lot 70), two extraordinary copies each of L'Heritier de Brutelle Cornus 1788, one printed on vellum (lots 94 and 95) and Lambert Genus Pinus 1803-7 and 1828-37 (lots 91 and 92), Lindley Digitalium monographia 1821 (lot 97), Martius Historia naturalis palmarum 1823-50 (lot 104), Rosenberg Corona Amaryllidacea 1839 (lot 129) and Salm-Reifferscheidt-Dyck Monographia generum Aloes et Mesembryanthemi 1836-63 (lot 132). Many of these took many years to produce and of one, Elwes Monograph of the genus Lilium 1877-1962 (lot 44), I had a modest share in bringing out the last supplement.
All this is a monument to the growth of modern botany. But it is not a purely 'modern' collection, in that sense, for it also contains some of the earliest editions of the classic texts, Hermolaus Barbaro's Castigationes on Pliny and Pomponius Mela, Venice, c. 1493-4 (lot 186), the 1483 Koberger edition of Bartholomaeus Anglicus (lot 188), Brunschwig Das Distilierbuch 1521 (lot 15), Crescentius Ruralia commoda, Strassburg, 1486 (lot 30), the 1485 Herbarius Latinus (lot 55), the two copies of the Hortus sanitatus mentioned earlier, the rare 1481 Pliny (lot 117), and a very fine copy of the Jenson Scriptores rei rusticae 1472 (lot 136). This last, bought from the Priuli collection by John, Duke of Roxburghe and from his sale in 1812 passing to the great Fitzwilliam Library, whence it passed to the discriminating collections of C.S. Ascherson and Albert Ehrman, shows the wide variety of sources from which this collection has been built up. But it remains a tribute to the catholic range of the de Belder brothers, and it is proper to end this brief survey of its chief treasures by drawing attention to three remarkable and rare Belgian examples: Drapiez Herbier de l'amateur des fleurs 1828-35 (lot 542), Geel Sertum botanicum 1828-32 (lot 52), and Spaendonck Fleurs dessinées d'après nature c. 1801 (lot 142), Wilfred Blunt's copy, all testimonies to a tradition which the de Belders did so much to record and stimulate.
Beyond all these great landmarks, which alone can be recorded here, was the great mass of botanical literature, preserved in print over the last five centuries. All this too has its part in the tradition of botanical knowledge. It is impossible to read without emotion the records of the sixteenth-century botanists as they discovered that printing what they found offered a means not only of communicating with others who shared their interests, but of preserving their discoveries for posterity. This collection is a monument to all the different forms that the same urge has brought about. Lives and fortunes have been spent in recording, depicting and explaining the wonders of nature; Linnaeus Systema naturae 1735 (lot 99), Darwin On the origin of species 1859 (lot 253) and Mendel Versuche über Pflanzen-Hybriden (lot 524) are three of the intellectual masterpieces that it has produced. This sale is not only a record of this tradition, but also an opportunity -- perhaps this time really never to occur again -- to acquire the material, great and small, of which it is made up.
The collection includes:
1. The rare book library bequeathed by Kenneth K. Mackenzie in 1934 to the Horticultural Society of New York, sold to Robert de Belder in 1981.
2. Robert de Belder's other acquisitions, including the library of Philippe de Vilmorin; a number of books from the Boissier-de Candolle collections (disposed of as a result of the amalgamation of those two libraries in the Conservatoire Botanique de Genève); significant auction purchases of a number of books from the sale of the Arpad Plesch collection (de Belder being the single largest buyer), as well as at sales from the libraries of the Earl of Derby, the Linnean Society of London and the Massachusetts Horticultural Society.
3. The present consignor's acquistions, augmenting nos. 1 and 2 above. These comprise the best selection of the finest color-plate books from the de Belder library (sold, Sotheby's London, 27 and 28 April 1987) as well as significant later additions made from worldwide sources in the international book trade and at public auction.
The provenance designation: "Kenneth K. Mackenzie; Horticultural Society of New York" in lots containing a single title has been abbreviated to "KKM/HSNY" in group lots. Since all of these items were later acquired by Robert de Belder we have not continually used his name to avoid repetition. All of the books from Mackenzie's bequest bear a discreet library blindstamp in the lower blank margin of one text leaf, as well as a bookplate.
Exception is made, however, when the present consignor purchased a Mackenzie book from the de Belder sale at Sotheby's 1987 sale. In such cases the provenance designation in the present catalogue shows "Robert de Belder" followed by the sale details.