ALLEN, John Fisk (1785-1865)
Victoria Regia; or the Great Water Lily of America. With a brief account of its discovery and introduction into cultivation: with illustrations by William Sharp, from specimens grown at Salem, Massachusetts, U.S.A.
Boston: printed and published for the author by Dutton & Wentworth, 1854. Broadsheet. (27 x 21 inches). Letterpress title, 1p. dedication to Caleb Cope, 12pp. text (numbered -16); 1p. index, plate list, note and errata. 6 chromolithographic plates by Sharp & Sons of Dorchester, Mass, 5 after William Sharp, 1 after Allen. Original publisher's brown paper lettered upper wrapper bound in.
Expertly bound to style in half green morocco and marbled paper covered boards, spine gilt with raised bands
A monument to American colour printing, a work which launched the age of chromolithography as an art in the United States. This work is one of very few truly great American botanical works and is one of the most beautiful flower books ever produced.
The Victoria Regia; or the Great Water Lily of America , provides an appropriate showcase for this gigantic water lily, first discovered along the Amazon River and then taken to Britain for cultivation. The so-called "vegetable wonder" was first described by Sir R.H.Schomburg in 1837. From the details he gave, the botanist John Lindley suggested that the lily was a new genera and put forward the name Victoria Regia in honour of Queen Victoria during the first year of her reign. "The giant water-lily is a spectacular flower; nineteenth century commentators describe with amazement the vast dimensions of its floating leaves, which could exceed two meters in diameter, and its great white flower, which opened in the evening and closed again at dawn in a truly lovely spectacle" ( Oak Spring Flora ).
In 1853, Allen, a well-respected horticulturalist and author of a treatise on viticulture, cultivated a seed from the water-lily given to him by Caleb Cope, president of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, and the man in whose garden the water-lily first flowered in America on 21 August 1851. Working at his home in Salem, Massachusetts, Allen tended the seed from January to July, when, on the evening of July 21st, the flower finally bloomed. Motivated by his success, Allen hoped to make the glory of the water-lily available to a wider audience and engaged the services of William Sharp, a British-born artist and pioneer of chromolithography then working in Boston.
Sharp had been practicing with the new technique of chromolithography as early as 1841, the first person to do so in the United States. His early efforts can be seen in Mattson's The American Vegetable Practice (1841), but, as McGrath states, those chromolithographs are merely "passable." Fortunately, Sharp improved his technique, and his next major project, the plates for Hovey's The Fruits of America (1852), demonstrated to all who viewed them the colourful and dramatic potential of chromolithography. Still, the process was in its infancy, and it would take a work of tremendous ambition to satisfactorily popularise the technique.
Allen's proposed book on the water-lily provided such a vehicle. Though the first plate of the Victoria Regia is based on a sketch Allen composed himself, the remaining five plates, which show the gradual development of the flowers from bud to full bloom, are wholly attributable to Sharp. Superlative in concept, colour, and execution, they became the first benchmark of the art. "In the large water lily plates of Victoria Regia, Sharp printed colors with a delicacy of execution and technical brilliance never before achieved in the United States" (Reese, Stamped with a National Character ).
Great Flower Books (1990) p.69; Hofer Bequest 72; Hunt Printmaking in the Service of Botany 56; Nissen BBI 16; Reese Stamped with a National Character 19; Stafleu & Cowan TL2 85; Tomasi An Oak Spring Flora 106.