Sunday, 4 July 2010

Book review: The Concise British Flora in Colour

The Concise British Flora in Colour (1965) by W.Keble Martin
The Concise British Flora was published in May 1965 when the author was 88. The book was the result of sixty years’ meticulous fieldwork and exquisite painting skills, and became an immediate best-seller. He completed over 1,400 paintings in colour and many black and white drawings before the book was finally published.
Wikipedia - W. Keble Martin
Title: The Concise British Flora in Colour
Synopsis:The product of a project lasting over 60 years to study, research, amd illustrate the natural wild flowers of the UK.  W. Keble Martin started before the first world war and this book was not published until 1965.  It records short descriptions of the plants with proper nomenclature and popular name.  On the opposite page are the composite illustrations of the variations of flowers within a family.  All the plants and flowers were drawn from life.  The book was a best seller when published in 1965 - a feat not yet repeated for a book about wild flowers.
Summary review: The primary reason for buying this book for me was nostalgia - for my childhood, expeditions to find wildflowers for a primary school project and (I now realise) for those wildflowers which are no longer common.  There are probably quite a few people over the age of 50 who feel the same.  Over and above that this was the book which introduced me to botanical illustration.  I loved the fact that the wild flowers were illustrated rather than photographed and what seemed to me to be the very innovative way that the flowers were arranged on the page.  I was hooked by this book and have remained interested ever since. 
  • a major work of reference for a particular point in the time re British Wild Flowers
  • combines botanical accuracy with very atractive botanical illustration
  • 1486 species illustrated, 1400 grouped in families on full colour plates
  • short descriptions of each plant with latin and popular name and description of plant and habitat
  • grouping flowers in families makes it easier to distinguish between different versions
  • still a useful reference work for all botanical artists working with wild flowers
Think Again?
  • Not the best botanical painting but still very good, especially considering he's a botanist by training
  • there's a great many editions out there and a great range of prices
  • some later editions may be of less good quality (try for an Ebury Press/Michael Joseph original)
Who should buy this?:
  • people who love British Wild Flowers
  • botanical artists
  • botanical art tutors
  • botanists (as a record of the time)
Who should not buy this?
  • people looking for botanical art instruction - there is none
Author / (Publisher) W. Keble Martin / Ebury Press/Michael Joseph G.Rainbird, 1965.
Technical data: Publication Date:
Hardcover (with dust jacket) -  pages;
The dedicated and painstaking skill which has gone into each plate in order to ensure complete accuracy in colour and detail will, I am sure, make the book invaluable to both amateur and professional botanists.  I hope it will stimulate new interests and nring delight to many thousands of readers
HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Ednburgh in the Foreword
I used to be able to refer to this book at primary school when it was frst published.  I could happily sit for ages gazing at all the different plates of drawings of wild flowers.  At the time the focus was on identifying wild flowers for a project.  I now realise that this early exposure to botanical painting of specimens helped to generate a life long interest in botanical art.

I rather suspect that there are other middle aged people like myself (and older) who also remember the impact this book had when it was first published in 1965.  I've never owned a copy and am really pleased I've now got one (ordered from Roger Lucas Books).  What struck me immediately when looking at it is how so many wild flowers are now now much less than common compared to the situation nearly 50 years ago.

W Keble Martin studied Botany at the University of Oxford, but he trained as a theologian and progress was to some extent dictated by his parish duties and where those parishes were located.  The book developed from a recreational interest and drawings were only completed slowly.
Every figure on these plates was drawn direct from nature.  The drawings were first made in the form of pen outlines of small separate sheets.  On each sheet the name of the specimen was recorded, with the date, the place from which the specimen came and the name of the sender, if any or the referee who named it.  These sheets form four octavo loose-leaf volumes.  
W. Keble Martin

One cannot help but be completely amazed at the scope and length of this project to document the complete wild flora of the British Isles   It would be great to know where those volumes pf botanical illustrations are now.


Carole Baker said...

I was delighted to see your review of this book. I got a copy in a used bookstore during my first trip to England in the mid-eighties. Many of the species illustrated are also here in the states, wild as well as in our gardens, and its been useful and enjoyable over the years to reference. I really like the way he arranged so much on each page so beautifully. Thank you for your informative review.

Julie Damaggio said...

I'm glad to see your review too !
I was on the first day of my London stay, two days ago, when I saw it in a used-book shop, and I was immediately attracted by the cover (and, to be fair, the price which was only 2£). It is sometimes very difficult to resist a book...
I think I'll need some training to be really able to recognize plants I don't already know, but it's a beautiful book at least, and very enjoyable. And now I will learn the names of the plants in English... (hopefully for me they all have latin names !). I'm very happy to see that it has a long story, and that it is as important as it is beautiful. Thank you again for the information about the book.

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