Prints from Life: Ernst Wilhelm Martius and the History of Nature Printing

October 31, 2019


Does this print illustrating the belladonna plant look unusual to you? It's from a wonderful 18th-century book that we recently acquired, Neueste Anweisung, Pflanzen nach dem Leben abzudrucken by Ernst Wilhelm Martius. Compared to most botanical illustrations of the period (and even modern ones) this example is exceptionally detailed—you can see tiny veins in the leaves, the texture of the stem, and areas where the edges of the leaves have folded over on themselves, as if a living plant was preserved between the book's pages. And that tells us we're looking at, not a typical engraving first produced in wood or metal by an artisan, but a work of nature printing—an impression taken directly from a plant or animal.

Humans have made impressions of plants for thousands of years. In Tahiti tapa cloth, made from the bark of the mulberry tree, was often decorated with prints of local plants such as ferns. Below, a piece of tapa cloth said to have been printed by the Queen of Tahiti, obtained in the Society Islands in the late 18th-century and now in the Peabody Essex Museum (Cave, Impressions of Nature, p. 18).

The earliest surviving European nature print was made by the German physician Conrad von Butzbach during his travels in Italy in 1425, and Leonardo da Vinci described the process of making prints from plants, including his own leaf print, in the Codex Atlanticus (fol. 72v-a) in 1508 (see Cave, pp. 21-24; Reed "Leonardo da Vinci and Botanical Illustration" in Visualizing Medieval Medicine and Natural History)

But the European tradition of nature printing really took off during the latter half of the sixteenth century, as part of a growing interest in cataloguing and studying natural specimens, particularly medicinal plants. From Italy the art spread to other parts of Europe and flourished during the 17th and 18th centuries. Regensburg, in Germany, became a centre of high quality nature printing, where several practitioners made contributions to its development.

"A problem when inking plates in the old manner... had been the difficulty of ensuring that the inking was even, and many prints certainly show heavier inking on one part of the leaf than another. One who sought a better way to deal with this was Ernst Wilhelm Martius (1756-1849), a Regensburg pharmacist who devised a better way of inking leaves on a polished copper plate: the copper shining through made it easy to see whether any areas were underinked" (Cave, p. 52).

Martius published two books containing nature prints, the largest being Icones Planatarum Originales ('Original Images of Plants'), issued in 1780. The second, Neueste Anweisung, Pflanzen nach dem Leben abzudrucken ('New Instructions on Taking Prints from Fresh Plants'), was published in 1784 and contains an explanation of his method, along with a short history of nature printing. The title page, shown below, depicts the press he devised for making these prints.

Even with these and other advances, nature printing was still tricky. Unlike metal plates or woodcuts, which can withstand thousands of impressions, plants can only be used to make ten or twenty prints. It is probably for this reason that most known copies of Neueste Anweisung contain only one or two plates with a different selection in each copy, as different plants were substituted into the press. Our copy is unusual in that it contains four plates: bittersweet (below), club moss, lilly of the valley, and belladonna (top).

Our copy is also interesting because it retains its original paper wrappers, rather than having been rebound in leather. Up to the 19th century books were often (but not always - though that's a topic for another post!) sold in cheap paper or board bindings because it made them less expensive, and purchasers generally had them rebound in something sturdier.

The tradition of nature printing, not just with plants but also animals and fish, has carried on to the present day, and is popular among artists as well as scientists and nature enthusiasts. If you're interested in learning more, the best place to start is Roderick Cave's beautifully illustrated book Impressions of Nature: A History of Nature Printing, published by the British Library in 2010 (the link will take you to a nice Guardian photo feature showing many examples of nature printing from the book). It has unfortunately just gone out of print, but may be available on secondhand book sites such as Biblio or ABE, or through your library.

For more on Leonardo's nature printing, see Karen M. Reeds' article, "Leonardo da Vinci and Botanical Illustration: Nature Prints, Drawings and Woodcuts ca. 1500" in the volume Visualizing Medieval Medicine and Natural History, 1200-1500, edited by Givens, Reed, and Touwaide.

For more details or to purchase our copy of Neueste Anweisung, please visit its shop page.