An Oak Spring Herbaria: Herbs and Herbals from the Fourteenth to the Nineteenth Centuries: A Selection of the Rare Books, Manuscripts and Works of Art in the Collection of Rachel Lambert Mellon by Lucia Tongiorgi Tomasi and Tony Willis. Upperville, VA: Oak Spring Garden Library; 2009. Hardcover; 394 pages. ISBN 978-0-965408-1-2. $89.00. Available in ABC’s online catalog #B785.
Every book has a story of how it came to be. Recipient of ABC’s 2009 James A. Duke Excellence in Botanical Literature Award, An Oak Spring Herbaria is the fourth in a series of authoritative catalogs published by the Oak Spring Garden Library. Other titles in the series include An Oak Spring Sylva, An Oak Spring Pomona, and An Oak Spring Flora. These interpretive, scholarly, illustrated catalogs describe selected works in the extraordinary private collection of Rachel Lambert Mellon—the Oak Spring Garden Library.
The Library is nestled on a quiet knoll on the 4,000-acre Mellon estate, Oak Springs Farm, in the foothills between the Blue Ridge Mountains and Bull Run Mountains in northern Virginia. It is a reflection of the mind and passion of Rachel Lambert Mellon, who has been collecting antiquarian books, manuscripts, artwork, and artifacts since childhood, and continues to do so in her 101st year. Over 10,000 volumes relating to gardening, landscape design, horticulture, botany, natural history, and botanical exploration are among the collections in the Library, designed by Edward Larrabee Barnes in 1980; a gift to Rachel Mellon from her late husband, Paul Mellon. As a child, Mrs. Mellon—the granddaughter of Listerine® inventor, Jordan W. Lambert—was encouraged to collect antiquarian books after expressing a fascination with fine illustrated children’s books.
Perhaps the reader will begin to picture a darkened, paneled library of rich hardwoods, with detailed molding and locked shelves, holding the investment artifacts of an individual of extraordinary fortune. Au contraire! The Oak Spring Library is light and airy, surprising the senses like the walls of a whitewashed stable. Nature is not stored on a shelf but invited to participate in the experience. Limestone paths leading to the library seem to be laid for the purpose of allowing weeds and wildflowers to grow as they please between cracks rather than to keep humans separate from the earth below. One is left with the impression of being in a living room, not a museum.
The Library is not the static collection of an investor; rather a living collection borne of passion for things botanical—and the passionate love of the bibliophile and collector—from which springs a lifelong pursuit of learning. The books did not simply arrive in a box, only to be shelved for storage. Mrs. Mellon consumed their contents, garnering an expertise in landscape philosophy, design, and the breadth of human experience with plants, leading to lasting achievements such as her design of the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden and the Rose Garden at the White House.
Only the book collector knows the elation of the arrival of an expected package followed by the delighted excitement of carefully unwrapping the new acquisition. Once the package content reveals itself, like a treasure hidden beneath the ocean’s surface, the spine and boards are visually inspected more for their beauty than their condition, and enjoyed for their tactile warmth. Inevitably, the collector turns to the title page, his or her hands slipping across the paper to enjoy the pleasure of the 3-dimensional feel of raised type imprinted on crafted paper. Thoughts wander to an author creating a manuscript with quill pen, rhythmically dipped into an inkwell, the muted sound of sand crackling when tossed across the page to hasten the ink’s hold to the fibers. The sounds and smells of the print shop, the papermaker, the bindery, drift from the page like a ghostly aroma. The tactile experience of the moment brings thoughts of the item’s provenance, readers who have come and gone, and what the words on the printed page contributed to human experience, appreciation of nature, or simple enjoyment of beauty alone.
Such was the experience of this writer the day An Oak Spring Herbaria arrived in the mailbox. Page by page, an hour quickly passed, spent consuming a visual impression of what treasures would emerge from a careful read. Few books of contemporary birth provide the tangible experience of the antiquarian book. This is a book designed and crafted with thoughts and appreciation for the works described within. The heavy endpapers with a simple tree silhouette repeated in a diamond pattern immediately reveal careful attention to detail—not really an important point beyond providing the all-telling first impression. The book blends the best that technology offers, making the book itself an object of beauty. The illustrations are captured with digital high-resolution photographic clarity and reproduced in duotone and process color by Finlay Printing in Bloomfield, Connecticut. Acme Bookbindery in Charlestown, Massachusetts, fused the sewn signatures between hard boards, clothed in fine Japanese silver-gray cloth. Mark Argetsinger, designer and scholar of fine printing, designed and composed the book in Digital Monotype Bembo. He also served as the editor and authored the chapter on American Herbals. No e-book will ever replace a physical book as a true piece of art.
The senior author, Lucia Tongiorgi Tomasi, Vice-Rector and professor of art history at the University of Pisa, labored over An Oak Spring Herbaria for 5 years, writing the original manuscript in Italian, which was simultaneously translated to English by Lisa Chen. The co-author, Tony Willis, is the long-time librarian at the Oak Spring Garden Library, handpicked at a young age by Mrs. Mellon and groomed to fulfill his promise.
The book is an authoritative survey of herbals, their authors, and history, as represented in selections from the collection of the Oak Spring Library, dating to the 14th century. Sixty-three selected works are detailed in thematic chapters, covering “Late Medieval Herbals,” “The Great Age of Renaissance Botany,” “Herbals from Distant Lands,” “Herbals of Botanical Gardens and Private Gardens of Europe,” “Curious and Strange Herbals,” “Dried Specimens and Nature Printing,” and “American Herbals.” One hundred-seventy illustrations, including 98 in full color and 72 duotones grace the pages.
As chapters, the 63 selected works covered in the book begin with a physical description of the item(s), along with format, measurements and other technical details. Plates or illustrative matter are enumerated in a separate heading, as is “provenance,” with information on previous owners, bookplates, and inscriptions among other details. References are listed citing works in the bibliography which follows the introduction. In most cases, the chapter heading is the name of the author of the work described. In this context, An Oak Spring Herbaria is in most instances as much about the author’s or artist’s biography as it is about the book or artwork. As a result, An Oak Spring Herbaria is as much about people as it is about books or illustrations.
Many unique illustrations, such as selected examples of 3 detailed botanical paintings of a Chinese artist, Mauk-Sow-U, commissioned by a young British botanist, John Bradby Blake (1745-1743), are reproduced for the first time. One beautiful illustration of Gardenia jasminoides (Rubiaceae) displays the remarkable sensitivity, artistry, and penchant for detail of Mauk-Sow-U’s work, under Blake’s guidance. Each morphological detail is reproduced as if a photograph, with individual plant parts sectioned laterally and horizontally to depict plant structures in brilliant watercolor and gouache, with subtle details enhanced by lucent varnish. The artist came to Blake’s residence daily to paint. Blake kept exacting notes on the creation of each illustration, rendered from live plants. “The gardenia was drawn June 1st 1771. I had two plants brought to me about two days journey from a very hilly situation, they are drawn in every respect of full size,” he wrote. The author of this review was particularly delighted by the illustration, as he has a single-flowered gardenia, grown as a container plant for 15 years which was propagated from seed of wild plants collected by a colleague in the very same region of China in the mid-1990s. The 1771 Blake commission mirrors the live plant in exacting detail, down to the subtle rendition of the color of the bark.
Blake, apparently intent on producing a Chinese herbal for a European audience, embarked for China in 1766 at the age of 20 as the representative of the owner of an East India Company ship. He died in 1773 in China at only 29, but left behind 11 volumes of manuscript material on the natural history of China, including 4 folio volumes of paintings, all of which are in the Oak Spring Library Collection.
The Blake folio volumes are among a dozen unique manuscript and folio collections detailed among the 63 chapters. Other items include a remarkable manuscript herbal, Webster’s Distribution of English Medicinal Plants, containing a collection of 226 watercolor/gouache drawings of medicinal plants by an English physician, Joshua Webster (1711-1803). Notes on the botany and medicinal uses of each plant are penned on the left margin of each plate. Notable for its superb botanical illustrations, such as the Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica, Urticaceae), Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare, Apiaceae) and Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis, Liliaceae), the manuscript’s leaves are produced as full-page, fullcolor illustrations in An Oak Spring Herbaria. The Oak Spring copy of the rare Buch der Natur, a 14th-century manuscript by Konrad von Medgenberg (1309-1374), one of 56 known manuscript copies of the work, is among only 2 extant copies that were lavishly illustrated with over 300 drawings. The curious simplistic tree watercolor on An Oak Spring Herbaria’s dust jacket is a folia from Buch der Natur. These are just a few of the one-of-a-kind treasures conserved in the Oak Spring Library and illuminated in An Oak Spring Herbaria.
Other unique artifacts illustrated and described in the book include 3 engraved, original woodblocks actually used in the printing of Pietro Andrea Mattioli’s 1565 Latin edition of Commentarii in sex libros Pedaii Discoridies Anazarbei de medical material. Eight medicinalplant oil paintings, rare and unique examples of decorative art that hung in pharmacies in the first half of the 17th century, are also among the treasures reproduced in the book.
An Oak Spring Herbaria, therefore, is much more than a simple review of the history, content, and illustrations of the great medieval and renaissance works by masters such as Otto Brunfels, Leonhart Fuchs, Rembert Dodoens, and John Gerard, among others. An Oak Spring Herbaria extends and surpasses the nuance and clarity of detail of classic herbal histories such as Agnus Arber’s Herbals (published in 1912, revised 1938) or Frank J. Anderson’’s An Illustrated History of the Herbals (Columbia University Press, 1977). Alone, the ‘Introduction’ to An Oak Spring Herbaria provides one of the most succinct and readable historical overviews of the evolution of the herbal genre, reflecting Tongiorgi Tomasi’s intimate familiarity of classical works, like most of us are familiar with the view from a living-room window. Argetsinger’s excellent chapter, “American Herbals,” details the scientific evolution of herbal medicine classics such as Jacob Bigelow’s American Medical Botany and C.S. Rafinesque’s Medical Flora, along with the rise of the egalitarian popular American herbal, such as Samuel Henry’s uneven and unreliable A New and Complete American Medical Family Herbal and Peter Peyto Good’s The Family Flora and Materia Medica Botanica.
Most books mirror the voice of the author. An Oak Spring Herbaria, however, feels more like the collective effort of a choreographed Broadway production. Tongiorgi Tomasi’s deep expertise in the classical illuminated manuscript and printed artwork is woven together with Willis’s day-in, day-out intricate knowledge of a collection he has handled for 3 decades. Argetsinger’s behind-the-scenes attention and direction to detail, coupled with expertise in the beautifully printed book and innate sense of design infuse each page. This is a labor of love.
Underlying the entire project, one senses the passion of the collector, Mrs. Mellon, and her extraordinary intimacy with the intrinsic value of art and words that can only come from decades of experience, fused with a deep understanding of the breadth of knowledge presented in botanical literature. Here, a lifetime of pleasure, passion, and dedication translates into the legacy of perpetuating knowledge in the evolution of human experience. For all its intricacy of production, An Oak Spring Herbaria ultimately reflects Mrs. Mellon’s gift of a worldview that recognizes the simple beauty of a weed allowed to grow in a place where others would simply have removed it.
—Steven Foster President, Steven Foster Group, Inc. Eureka Springs, AR