Anyone looking for a gift for the gardener who has everything need look no further. As if by way of riposte to the Kindle generation, the Prince of Wales has sponsored publication of The Highgrove Florilegium, one of the most lavish (and, at £12,950 [$20,890], one of the most expensive) books of modern times.
The two volumes are filled with 120 prints of watercolours by 72 leading botanical artists. It’s a sumptuous, colourful production, a work of art in its own right. It also looks back to the great age of botanical book publication, when grandees would commission massive, illustrated studies of the rare plants in their gardens and hothouses. Every plant depicted in the book can be found growing in Prince Charles’s own celebrated garden at Highgrove in Gloucestershire. Unlike his predecessors, however, the prince has chosen not to use the book as an opportunity to show off rare and expensive specimens. Instead, he celebrates some of the humbler wildflowers, native plants, fruit and vegetables that are an important part of the organic ethos of his estate. Thus we can enjoy beetroots and buttercups alongside more exotic horticultural fancies, such as rhododendrons and Paulownia tomentosa.
The Latin word florilegium (pronounced flori-lee-jum) means simply a gathering of flowers and was originally used to describe anthologies of prose. Later it came to refer to portfolios of botanical illustrations, often associated with single gardens or foreign collecting trips – such as the Banks’ Florilegium, which comprises paintings of the specimens found by Sir Joseph Banks on his travels around Australia. Perhaps the most celebrated florilegium is the Hortus Eystettensis of 1613, a catalogue of the choicest plants in the Bavarian garden of Johann Konrad von Gemmingen, prince-bishop of Eichstätt, who did not, alas, live to see it completed. Just 300 copies were printed; the British Library holds a particularly fine example, a legacy from the library of King George III. Prince Charles’s florilegium is very much in this grand tradition, with just 175 copies offered for sale. Most have gone to libraries and institutions such as the Royal Horticultural Society in London.
The two volumes together weigh more than 25lb and stand at more than 2ft high and 1.5ft wide. The physical production of the book was the work of a bibliophile’s dream-team of craftsmen: the marbled paper was supplied by Victoria Hall of Norfolk; the book was bound by Stephen Conway of Halifax, in goatskin specially dyed by J Hewit & Sons of Edinburgh; while father-and-son partnership James and Stuart Brockman of Oxford looked after the gold tooling and binding design. The pages were printed by specialist printers St Ives Westerham Press and, as a finishing touch, protective felt covers were handmade by Scottish artist and “felter” Liz Brown.
It’s an impressive artefact, then, even before you open the book. In fact, knowledge of the cost and the work that has gone into each and every copy is enough to make the average person rather nervous of touching such a precious object. But what a treat lies in store for anyone perusing this book or, indeed, viewing the original watercolours in an exhibition.
The artists whose work appears in the book were not simply invited to contribute – there was a competitive element to it. An international longlist was drawn up by a selection committee chaired by Helen Allen, who teaches the diploma course in botanical illustration at the English Gardening School. Rather than invite more than 100 artists into the garden at Highgrove, the prince and former head gardener David Howard drew up a selective list of plants that can be found growing in the garden. They then asked the artists to choose a plant to depict. In the event, only 30 per cent of the paintings submitted were accepted for publication.
Among the highlights of the book are some of its most unassuming subjects. Brassica oleracea, or wild cabbage, for example, is lent great dignity by “Flappy” Lane Fox (Robin Lane Fox’s sister-in-law), who has captured its statuesque beauty while adding the verisimilitudinous touch of a yellowing leaf (there are many such moments in the book, contributing the kind of wit that would, in the past, have been provided by incidental depictions of flying insects and creeping grubs). Jessica Tcherepnine celebrates the exuberant character of the beetroot Beta vulgaris “Boltardy”, while Elizabeth Dowle’s vivid painting of the Ribston Pippin apple presents the plant in all its guises: in flower, in fruit on the branch and then cut in half and in quarters. Even these familiar plants have been given the full scientific treatment by the eminent botanists who have provided the accompanying descriptions.
There are show-off plants in here, as well: the inky black Iris “Black Swan” is depicted by Kate Nessler and the black parrot tulip by Gillian Foster, while Josephine Elwes offers the multi-fingered leaves of Ginkgo biloba in both summer and autumn hues. Lizzie Sanders has produced a magnificent single pinky white bloom of Rhododendron basilicum bursting out from a spray of elegant leaves.
There is also a wide range of different approaches to the subject matter on display. The delicate stems and vivid yellow, star-like flowers of Mieko Ishikawa’s Jasminum nudiflorum tumble diagonally across the page, as if to say the plant’s natural winter exuberance is uncontrollable, while the cluster of snake’s head fritillaries painted by Janet Rieck is offset by a knotted confusion of leaves below, which is both intriguing and beautiful.
Josephine Hague’s Paulownia tomentosa, on the other hand, is altogether more well-behaved. Her portrait depicts in minute detail the plant’s purple trumpet flowers and heart-shaped seeds, against a backdrop of a single large leaf. In this case, both flower and seed are then shown in dissected form on each side of the main ensemble, in the classic manner of botanical illustration.
There are three more major florilegia under way in this country, devoted to the plants at Hampton Court Palace, Chelsea Physic Garden and Sheffield Botanical Gardens, though given the cost of production it seems unlikely that these portfolios will ever be brought together in a book like that produced for Highgrove. Perhaps it’s just as well – something as special as The Highgrove Florilegium should surely come along just once or twice in every lifetime.
The Highgrove Florilegium is available from Addison Publications, www.addisonpublications.com. The book costs £12,950 per set and about 35 of the print run of 175 are still available. All royalties from sales will go to the Prince of Wales’s Charities Foundation.
See the watercolours: after successful exhibitions in New York, Los Angeles, London and Amsterdam of the original watercolours in The Highgrove Florilegium, Guernsey Museum is hosting a show from September 17 to December 31. This is expected to be the last time the watercolours will be displayed together.
Commissioning your own florilegium: obviously the costs involved make this idea prohibitive for most people but a good way of celebrating a private garden and its plants is to commission a garden photographer to make a special study of it, perhaps over the course of a year. The results can then be published privately for family and friends.
For more information on florilegia: go to www.florilegia.info
Visit: for an overview of the contemporary botanical art scene, the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, holds one of the world’s most comprehensive private collections, with more than 750 contemporary botanical drawings by some 240 artists.