Published: March 29, 2019

The Popular and Prolific Ms. Pratt

Gretchen Rings, Museum Librarian and Head of Library Collections, Library

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Illustrator Anne Pratt brought botany—and "romantic flower-lore"—to the public eye.

During the Victorian era, many gifted women participated in what has been called the Golden Age of botanical art, reflecting both a surge in gardening interests across English society as well as advances in book-making technology. Though virtually unknown today, Anne Pratt was one of the most popular artists and writers of this time, ultimately producing twenty published works loved for their handsome and accurate illustrations and helping to create interest in flower study in the general public.

Born in 1806 in Strood, Kent, Pratt was the second of three daughters to Robert Pratt, a successful wholesale grocer, and Sara Bundock, who helped instill in her daughter a love of gardening, plants, and flowers. Due to poor health, Pratt was often confined indoors, where drawing became a favorite pastime. A friend of the family introduced her to botany, a subject considered suitable for women—collecting, illustrating, decoupage, and writing were all acceptable activities during a time when society imposed more restrictions than not.

Unmarried until the age of sixty, it is likely that Pratt’s only source of income was her botanical writing and illustrations. She became a household name with Wild Flowers of the Year, issued in 1852–1853. After seeking Queen Victoria's permission, Pratt dedicated the book to the monarch, who praised it and requested copies of all of the illustrator's works as a result. Pratt's The Flowering Plants and Ferns of Great Britain is credited with generating interest among the general public in British flora by combining “easily digested science with miscellaneous romantic flower-lore” (Blunt & Stearn).

Originally five volumes covering the entire British flora, Pratt added a sixth supplemental volume, The British Grasses, Sedges, Ferns and their Allies the Club Mosses, Pepperworts, and Horsetails. She begins volume one telling her readers that “one of the chief objects is to aid those who have not hitherto studied Botany,” and she briefly compares the Linnaean system of classification with various natural systems currently in vogue.

A botanical illustration of a bunch of thistles, some that are red, some a more subdued pink. Some of the stalks are covered in thorns and have green bulbs near the top.

A variety of plume thistles in The Flowering Plants by Anne Pratt. The New York Botanical Garden contributed this image to the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

The Flowering Plants also employed a new method for mass market book printing called the Baxter method. Patented by George Baxter in 1835, it “combined the two processes of intaglio and relief” and was a less expensive method of printing color for a wide audience. The Flowering Plants was a landmark book in many ways, with far-reaching influence. It also includes numerous references to the use of plants for medicinal purposes as well as folkloric information, like that of Tamarisk (Tamarix).

Pratt wrote that the Tamarisk tree, also known as salt cedar, was “thought to improve the flavour of ale; the spit made of its wood imparted an excellence to the meat roasted upon it; and its use was considered so beneficial to persons afflicted with diseases of the spleen, that physicians ordered patients to eat from dishes made of Tamarisk wood.” She also noted its appearance in classic literature: “Homer mentions it as the tree against which Achilles laid his spear before he rushed into Xanthus to pursue the fleeing Trojans.” 

So plunged in Xanthus, by Achilles’ force,

Roars the resounding surge with men and horse;

His bloody lance the hero cast aside,

Which spreading Tamarisks on the margin hide.

A botanical illustration of a group of evergreen-like plants, including one with very small white flowers and one with red berries.

An illustration by Pratt that includes English tamarisk, which has very small white flowers. The New York Botanical Garden contributed this image to the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Though she is generally lauded for her artistry, Pratt has been criticized for lacking scientific credentials and some have debated whether she may be considered a true botanist. As was typical for the Victorian era, Pratt downplayed her own work, such as in the opening of Flowers and Their Associations (1840) with the “hopes these pages may not be unacceptable.” Though considered a “suitable ladylike pursuit” in the eighteenth century, the field of botany was also changing, becoming a male-dominated profession.

Ultimately, Pratt was read by a wide audience, with the ability to “blend botany with the romance of nature—and thus fulfill two marketing niches—the demand for nature writing and flowers and the need for botanical knowledge for ladies” (Kramer). Regardless of any controversy over her credentials, Pratt’s books were appreciated on multiple levels, and reviving interest in Pratt’s substantial body of work is an important example of the Biodiversity Heritage Library’s ongoing endeavor to preserve biodiversity literature and bring to light forgotten authors and illustrators.

Biodiversity Heritage Library originally published this article.

References

Blunt, Wilfrid, and William T. Stearn. 1994. The Art of Botanical Illustration. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Antique Collectors’ Club in association with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Burns, Mary. 2017. “Printing and Publishing the Illustrated Botanical Book in Nineteenth Century Great Britain.” Cogent Arts & Humanities 4: 1364058.

Lindsay, Debra. 2018. Maria Martin’s world: Art & Science, Faith & Family in Audubon’s America.

Pratt, Anne, and Edward Step. 1905. The Flowering Plants, Grasses, Sedges, & Ferns of Great Britain and Their Allies, the Club Mosses, Horsetails, etc. London: F. Warne.

Shteir, Ann B. 1996. Cultivating Women, Cultivating Science: Flora’s Daughters and Botany in England 1760 to 1860.

Walpole, Josephine. 2006. A History and Dictionary of British Flower Painters, 1650–1950. Woodbridge: Antique Collectors’ Club.

Wikipedia, “Anne Pratt,” accessed March 12, 2019.