Don’t judge a book by its cover

Early books were bound on the instructions of the purchaser, hence the potential discrepancy between the contents and what is shown on the binding.  (One could almost imagine covering some fluffy chick-lit with a Jonathan Franzen cover nowadays.) This was just one of the gems of information from Brent Elliott, RHS Historian, at the recent Research Workshop.  Brent, along with Wisley librarians, Gaynor Messenger and Fran Watkins, captivated a group of Collection Holders with information on how to research their collections.

The Lindley library catalogue is available online and the details of the records were explained.  For example looking at the record for Flora Londinensis  by William Curtis  gives details of contributors, provenance and binding as well as links to other related books.  One catalogue record could provide months of research material before you even got close to the actual book.

Plant monographs are a real strenth of the library and the Collection Holders present were encouraged to publish their research to add to the available knowledge. Registers and checklists are vital sources for those who need to find out which plants have existed and may still be in existence somewhere. The are, by and large, a 2oth Century introduction, and one example we were shown started out with Narcissus which was in the original issue, a slim pamphlet which would easily fit into a jacket pocket.  It is now a hefty two hander tome.

One of the research activities carried out by Collection Holders is to try and find the date that a plant name was first published. They also try to find illustrations or descriptions of cultivated plants to try and tie them up with what exists in living form, in their collections. Quite often the original plant is not the same as the plant we grow under that name now.

Linnaeus’ 1753 ‘Species Plantarum’ is the starting point in time for modern plant names; you can still see evidence for this in the authority abbreviation L. often seen after plant names. Linnaeus introduced the idea that not all the plant attributes needed to go into the name, reducing names from a string of descriptive epithets to a straightforward binomial., hence simplifying the whole subject.  Charlie Jarvis wrote ‘Order out of chaos’ in 2007 identifying the Linnaean names with their original type specimens, and giving current names for these types.

Nursery catalogues are a treasure trove of information for introduction dates and descriptions and the Lindley library holds a vast collection at Wisley (20th century onwards) and London (seed catalogues and foreign companies).  As country house archives are digitised it is hoped that many early nursery bills will become available.

The enquiry team at the library can help with searching journals and our Collection Holders have access to JStor, which gives full article text.

We are very grateful to the staff at the Lindley Library for this workshop.  Our 2011/12 programme of workshops is funded by NFU Mutual, Tanner Trust, Topinambour Trust and Brother and we appreciate their continued support of our educational remit.

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