An 18th-century 'bouquet' still blooms bright - online

This elegant, precise engraving of a rose can be found in what is essentially an 18th-century coffee-table book devoted to garden flowers.

Issued periodically from 1750 to 1786, this book of 190 flowers was commissioned by German doctor and amateur gardener Christoph Jacob Trew.

Known for short as "Trew's Hortus," its longer name, starting with "Hortus Nitidissimis..." translates as "A Garden Bright Throughout the Whole Year With Superb Flowers or Otherwise Delightful Flower Depictions."

The aim of this decorative florilegium (an anthology or "bouquet" of flowers) - was to be "a complete collection of the most magnificent tulips and crown imperials; the sweetest hyacinths, daffodils, narcissi and jonquils; the most charming roses, ranunculuses, anemones and auriculas."

However, the periodical release of the plates meant that not all the collectors bought all the plates. Today, though the "Hortus" is considered one of the great florilegias of the 1700s, complete copies are very rare. This rarity has been exacerbated by the destructiveness of print sellers, who framed the prints and sold them separately. Copies are also now terribly fragile, and even public collections necessarily limit access for the sake of conservation.

But now a paper conservator - Jonathan Farley at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (in London) - has masterminded a project that offers a creditable answer to the problem. Mr. Farley quotes art critic Sacheverell Sitwell, writing in 1956, that books like this Hortus were "quite unknown" and "locked away in museums." Sitwell believed this presented "an obstacle to the general appreciation which will never be overcome."

Today, Farley points out with glee, computer technology and the Internet resoundingly prove Sitwell wrong. Kew Gardens, collaborating with London's Natural History Museum - and with generous funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation - has created a virtual copy of the Hortus. Not only have they brought together on a website all the images, but they have also translated the German and Latin text into English. The Hortus is now available for all at www.rbgkew.org.uk/ data/trew/home.do.

This plate of a "province rose," described as one of the most common roses in England at that time, is based on a painting by Georg Dionysius Ehret.

Though Ehret is sometimes credited with most of the plates in the Hortus - and he did contribute many more than any other single artist - his images account for only 28 percent of the total. This rose is one of the most beautiful.

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