This remarkable set of still-lifes depicting The Twelve Months of Flowers was the result of the collaboration of three leading figures in their respective fields in England in the first half of eighteenth century: the artist, Pieter Casteels III, the engraver, Henry Fletcher and the nurseryman, Robert Furber. Undertaken as a commercial venture in order to sell bound sets of hand-colored copper engraved plates to a group of subscribers, it also served to showcase, by acting as a high- quality seed catalogue, Furber's nursery at Kensington. This was the first commercial horticultural catalogue of its time and as such, it represents a defining point in the history of botanical illustration and horticultural literature in Britain.
The celebrated set of paintings and their engraved plates, one for every month of the year, consists of an appropriate arrangement of flowers in a vase. In the plates the individual plants are numbered with a corresponding key listing them by name at the bottom enabling customers to easily identify and order them. Over four hundred separate species are depicted (a complete list is available on request from the department). The plates were advertised in Fog's Weekly Journal of 25 September 1731 as being 'compleatly finished' and ready for delivery. In the same notice subscribers were asked to send 'their receipts, with the remainder of their subscription money, to Robert Furber, gardener, at Kensington; Peter Casteels, painter in Long-acre; and Henry Fletcher; engraver in Nottingham-street, near Plumb-tree square'. In a post-script it was announced that sets were still available at £2.12s.6d with the plates coloured and £1.5s.0d with the plates plain. A thirteenth plate, issued later, consists of a list of subscribers, engraved within a floral border and a dedication to Frederick, Prince of Wales and Anne, Princess Royal.
The three entrepreneurs had ventured £500 on the scheme but found 457 subscribers (listed on the thirteenth plate) netting themselves each a handsome profit even before further sales of the prints, the plants or the original paintings. Its success led to the publication of a companion series, the Twelve Months of Fruit of 1733, which Casteels also designed in conjunction with Furber, several plates from the set were engraved by Fletcher. It inspired Jacob van Huysum, brother of the famous Jan, who had recently moved to London from Amsterdam, to paint between 1732-6, his own set of Twelve Months of Flowers (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge).
The popularity and success of the original series of the Twelve Months of Flowers is attested to by the fact that between 1732 and 1760 no less than six pirated publications, with reduced copies of the plates, were being offered for sale. As a result of this piracy, in 1735, Fletcher was called as a witness to give evidence to the parliamentary committee investigating the case for an engravers' copyright act, in which William Hogarth was a prime mover (see R. Paulson, Hogarth: High Art and Low, 1732-1750, II, 1992, p. 40). Fletcher's evidence helped lead to the Engravers' Act of 1737 which stipulated that a fine of 5-shillings was to be imposed on every unauthorised copy of a print produced within fourteen years from the date of execution inscribed on the original.
Pieter Casteels was born in Antwerp, Southern Netherlands, on 3 October 1684, the son of Pieter Casteels, painter. He was trained by his father and in 1708 arrived in London with his brother-in-law, Peter Tillemans, having been offered work by a picture dealer. He settled readily into London's artistic community, subscribing to Kneller's Great Queen Street academy in 1711 and becoming a member of the Rose and Crown Club. Although he returned briefly to Antwerp in 1716, Casteels settled permanently in England where he was a leading painter of flowers and exotic birds, chiefly for overdoors and chimney-pieces. His range as a decorative painter also encompassed small history pictures in architectural settings. But painting provided only a part of his income: he also imported fine pictures from the continent; his patrons included James Stanley, tenth Earl of Derby. Between September 1722 and May 1724 Derby spent just under £2,500 on seventeen Italian and Flemish paintings supplied by Casteels and £10 on a flower piece by Casteels himself.
In 1726 Casteels successfully launched a subscription for a set of twelve prints of birds which he had etched after his own designs, this being the first work in that kind of his doing. This project encouraged him undertake the publishing venture of the Twelve Months of Flowers and the Twelve Months of Fruit.
By advertising the usefulness of these sets of prints as patterns for workers in luxury industries, Casteels drew attention to his own potential as a textile designer. In May 1735 he retired from painting and spent his last fourteen years working for a calico manufacturer as a residential artist, first at Martin Abbey near Tooting, Surrey, and later, briefly, in Richmond, Surrey. He died in Richmond on 16 May 1749 after a lingering illness, and was buried there. A sale of his collections, including copperplates, was announced by the auctioneer Richard Ford in the General Advertiser on 6 March 1750 and the plates of his Birds were acquired by the printseller John Bowles.
Henry Fletcher (active 1715-44) lived in London but nothing is known of his background. Initially he worked for booksellers, and in 1715 produced a portrait frontispiece to Robert Nelson's Works. Later he also worked for printsellers, for instance making smaller duplicates of Bernard Baron's 1728 set of Seven Acts of Charity. In April 1729 Vertue noted that Fletcher had just published a Story of Bathsheba after Sebastiano Conca (Vertue Note books, 3, p. 38).
By that time, however, Fletcher was also working on the subjects from natural history for which he became best known. He engraved fifteen plates and the frontispiece (dated 1729) for the Catalogus plantarum, A catalogue of trees, shrubs, plants and flowers, both exotic and domestic, propagated for sale in the gardens near London by a society of gardeners (1730), shortly before engraving the Twelve Months of Flowers and several plates for the Twelve Months of Fruit. He followed this with engravings for Charles Collins's Twelve Prints of English Birds (1736).
Much of Fletcher's later work was topographical. In 1739 he engraved a set of six views of Venice after Canaletto, published by Joseph Baudin, and he also engraved London views after Joseph Nichols. He was listed by Vertue as an active engraver in 1744 but no work of later date is known.
Robert Furber (c. 1674-1756) established his Kensington nursery soon after 1700 near Hyde Park Gate and Kensington Gore, on the west of what became Gloucester Road. Furber and Christopher Gray both bought some of the plants collected at Fulham Palace by Henry Compton, Bishop of London, after the bishop's death in 1713, and by 1724 Furber's stock was rich enough for some of his exotic trees and shrubs, including the moss rose, to be listed by Philip Miller in his Gardeners and Florists Dictionary (1724). Furber was also one of the Society of Gardeners, led by Miller, which published the first part of its Catalogus plantarum in 1730, but by then he had issued two catalogues of his own, one of English and Foreign Trees, the other of the Best and Choicest Fruit Trees (both in 1727). About 1720 Furber had published an engraving of a tulip tree, a magnolia (then considered another species of tulip tree), and a silk-cotton tree, all from the garden of Thomas Herbert, eighth Earl of Pembroke; presumably the trees had been supplied by Furber, who prefaced his tree catalogue with an account of his success in propagating the tulip tree.
Furber's pictorial catalogue of the Twelve Months of Flowers were issued either plain or hand-colored. Smaller versions, engraved by James Smith, were used to illustrate The Flower-Garden Display'd of 1732, with descriptions of the flowers probably written by Richard Bradley; and another set of small copies was issued by John Bowles in 1749 as Flora. In 1733 Furber's Short Introduction to Gardening to supplement the large plates and to help his customers in furnishing their gardens and tables. The preface reminds its readers of the contents of Furber's nursery, as well as his own satisfaction with his work:
Gardening is the Employment Providence has allotted me; and it happily falls out to be a Business the most suitable of all others to my Genius and Inclination. I have spent my Years in collecting, cultivating and improving all the different Kinds of Trees, Plants, Fruits, and Flowers, that I could possibly obtain; and in doing this, have spared neither Cost nor Pains. With intent to make the Love of Gardening more general, and the understanding of it more easy, I have from time to time published Catalogues, containing large Variety of Trees, Plants, Fruits, and Flowers, both Foreign and Domestic, cultivated by me for Sale.
Furber was an overseer of the poor in the parish of St. Mary Abbots, Kensington, in 1718, and a churchwarden in 1725-6 and 1736-7. He was buried at St Mary Abbots on 1 September 1756. He left his Kensington house to his wife and a legacy to their son, William, who had been apprenticed to Philip Miller in 1722. Most of his other property was left to John Williamson, who worked with Furber during his later years and who took over the Kensington nursery, which was maintained by a succession of gardeners until the late 1840s.
The early provenance of Casteels' set of the Twelve Months of Flowers is extremely interesting and when the pictures appear in the privately printed 1891 inventory of Corsham Court compiled by Paul, 3rd Lord Methuen (op.cit.), they are referred to as being 'from the Methuen collection'. This would imply that they belonged to the great eighteenth-century diplomat and collector, Sir Paul Methuen (1672-1757). Sir Paul, best known for his role in concluding the 'Methuen Treaty' of 1703 with Portugal, went on to serve as ambassador to that country in 1706 following the death of his father, John Methuen. From 1709 to his final resignation in 1730, Sir Paul served as a Lord of the Admirality, a Lord of the Treasury, Privy Counsellor, Ambassador to Spain, Principal Secretary of State, Comptroller and Treasurer of the Household.
In addition to his political accomplishments, Sir Paul, aided by the inheritance of a substantial family fortune, collected on a grand scale. In 1715 he began acquiring Old Master paintings for his London house in Grosvenor Square. Among the highlights were Anthony van Dyck's Betrayal of Christ (Corsham Court, Bristol Museum and Art Gallery) and Pietro da Cortona's Tancred and Erminia (Corsham Court, The Methuen Collection). The Twelve Months of Flowers, which retain their fine early eighteenth-century English carved giltwood frames (fig. 1), were most likely purchased by Sir Paul, directly from Casteels, for the decoration of his Grosvenor Square residence, shortly after the publication of the successful engravings in 1732.
On Sir Paul's death in 1757, his collection was inherited by his cousin and godson, Paul Methuen (1723-95), who had purchased Corsham Court in 1745. Methuen began to plan the reconstruction of the Elizabethan building as early as 1749 and in 1760 Lancelot 'Capability' Brown was commissioned to enlarge the house. His interiors, most obviously the picture gallery (see figs. 2 and 3) and the Cabinet Room beyond were specifically designed to house Sir Paul's pictures. It is not known where the Twelve Months of Flowers hung in the house in the eighteenth century but by the time of the unpublished 1860 Corsham inventory, they had been placed on the Lower Corridor. The paintings remained in the Methuen collection at Corsham until they were sold in 1913.
We are grateful to James Methuen-Campbell for providing details of the provenance.