The British Herbal: an History of Plants and Trees, Natives of Britain, cultivated for beauty. By John Hill, M.D.

HILL John (1756)

£7500.00  [First Edition]

Available to view at our Curzon Street shop.

First Edition. Large Folio. Text and plates with watermark of a fleur-de-lis with countermark "IV". [Text: 409 x 252 mm]. [4], 533, [3 (index)] pp. Engraved frontispiece and seventy-five engraved plates by various engravers, all with careful contemporary hand-colour. One or two small wormholes in the lower inner corner of the first 50pp (almost imperceptibly going through some of the images) and in the fore-margin of the last few leaves. Otherwise a lovely, fresh copy. Bound in 1765 (see below) in mottled calf, comb-marbled endleaves (rebacked, original spine label preserved, the other panels tooled in gilt to style; inside joints strengthened with cloth; corners worn; the surface of the leather affected by the mottling acid and a little scuffed).

The frontispiece designed by Samuel Wale and engraved by H. Roberts depicting "The Genius of Health receiving the tributes of Europe Asia Africa and America and delivering them to the British Reader" has been carefully hand-coloured (though with some oxidisation on the faces) and the name of artist ("S. Wale delin.") carefully scratched-out and that of the colourist "St George Molesworth pinxit" added by hand. The Rev. St George Molesworth (1731-1796), grandson of the 1st Viscount Molesworth, was the absentee vicar of Northfleet, Kent (presented Feb. 1763) and d. at Hamburg.The vignette on the title designed by Wale and engraved by Charles Grignion depicting "Aesculapius and Flora gathering from the Lap of Nature, Health and Pleasure" has also been carefully hand-coloured and there is a tiny ink cypher "[?E]B pinxt." opf the colourist added beneath. Neat manuscript ink note on the title beneath the imprint "Finished and bound in ye year MDCCLXV" [the date cut from the imprint of a book]. The engraved coat-of-arms of the dedicatee, the Earl of Northumberland, has also been hand-coloured.

London: for T. Osborne and J. Shipton; J. Hodges; J. Newbery; B. Collins; and H. Crowder and H. Woodgate, 

 On 27 Dec. 1755 the Public Advertiser announced that: "This work will consist of one Volume in Folio, and no more; and will be published in Fifty Numbers, on a fine Paper, and with a new Letter. Each number will consist of three sheets of Letter Press, and one Plate of Figures, or of two sheets of Letter Press and two Plates, (each Plate being considered as equivalent to one Sheet,) and will be delivered Weekly at the Price of Sixpence. Number 1. will be published on Saturday the 24th of January."


In the end The British Herbal was completed in 52 weekly numbers with 75 engraved plates. In November 1757 complete copies were advertised for £1/16/- or £1/11/6 "bound" and "There is also a Royal Impression of this Work with the Cuts coloured, from Nature, after Originals, done by the Author, Price ten Guineas." The present copy is not one of those on Royal paper coloured by the author. It is on ordinary paper but it has been magnificently coloured within a few years of publication by either by the Rev. St. George Molesworth who signed the frontispiece or the unidentified "[?E]B" who signed the title-page vignette.


Hill produced a monumental and beautiful volume and the anecdotal elements of his text are very readable with his experience as an apothecary and plant-collector providing insights into where plants could be found and into their medical uses, e.g. and at random, of Common Brooklime (Veronica Beccabunga): "It is an excellent antiscorbutick. Its juice, taken in spring, is one of the first of that class we usually call sweeteners of the blood. It may be given either alone or mixed with the juice of watercress and of Seville orange. ... A pultice of it, boiled tender, is excellent in the piles." (p. 95).


The reviews, however were scathing, not least due to Hill's (not entirely unreasonable) objections to the strictures of Carl Linnaeus's binomial taxonomic system which was then beginning to find universal acceptance and which he was the first to attempt to introduce in England - "Such is the system of Linnaeus. Novelty made it please, and its obscurity rendered it admired; but it cannot be lasting." (p. 31) - but also due to his own inconsistency in applying his own methods as well as other inaccuracies (see Chapter 14, "Hill and Linnaeus" in George Rousseau's biography of Hill).


"We observe this author continually exclaiming against Linnaeus's system, in almost every page of the book, and at the same time declaring the method himself follows in tis work to be conformable to nature in every part: but it appears to us, that his method is no other than that of Morison and Ray conjoined, with a few innovations of his own. ... Upon the whole, we must say, that this boasted performance comes far short of some Herbals, which were extant long before this appeared, with regard to the number of plants, as well as to the execution of the work." - The Critical Review, Vol. VI (1758), p. 311.


"The Doctor has thought fit to treat with much freedom, the several systems of all antecedent botanical Writers; he announces his opinions, with respect to method, quasi e cathedra, and authoritatively determines the virtues of a great variety of plants upon his own experience, in such a manner, as may, perhaps, induce strangers to suppose him, one of the most universal practitioners in Europe. However, as he is not always wrong, it seems to have been a standing maxim with him, to put it out of any person's power to accuse him of bashfulness. - This work has also one advantage over any other of the kind, in that the figure of every plant is delineated on copper-plates, which, if not elegantly engraved, are accurately descriptive of their several subjects." - The Monthly Review, Vol. XVIII (1758), p. 328.


The botanist and physician Dr. Richard Pulteney, however was more positive. Writing anonymously in The Gentleman's Magazine he commented, "it is the best and most perfect history of the English plants in the language ... and is by far better accomodated to botanick intelligence, than either Gerard's or Parkinson's herbals." - Vol. XXVIII (1758), p. 362.


Hill failed to obtain the awards and scientific recognition that he hoped for in his lifetime, apart from the award of a knighthood of the Swedish Order of Vasa in 1774 (hence he is generally known as "Sir" John Hill), and he was widely reviled and satirised by his contemporaries, but the wide range and vast energy of his writings has allowed his first biographer, George Rousseau, to reassess his legacy.  


Provenance: 1: Neat ink inscription on the flyleaf dated "Nuremberg April ye 18. 1765. - Dr Hill of England, was at ye last Assembly admitted a Member of ye Imperial Academy, by ye Title of Theophrastus Secundus: ...." with added note in the same hand "Wedn. Nov. 22. 1775. Died at his House in Golden Square London Sir John Hill Knight of ye Swedish Order of Vasa, & Botanist to ye Royal Garden at Kew."; a one-line ink inscription on the verso of the front flyleaf has been carefully erased. 2: T. Beale, with neatly cut-out armorial bookplate with crest of a unicorn's head erased within a floral wreath; probably the Rev. Thomas Beale, M.A. (d. 14/6/1805), perpetual curate of Bengeworth, Warwickshire (installed 1771, incumbent until 1793), of the Mansion House, Bengeworth, "a gentleman of genuine philanthropy and universal benevolence, which induced him to contribute towards all the principal charities in the kingdom" (Universal Magazine, Vol. IV, July to December 1805, p. 87).; son of Thomas Beale, of Newent, Glos., succeeded by his nephew Thomas Beale Cooper; he subscribed to 2 fine paper copies of William Tindal's History and Antiquities of the Abbey and Borough of Evesham (Evesham, 1791); books with the same bookplate include copies of Thomas Pennant's History of Quadrupeds (1781) and Peter / Pehr Kalm's Travels in North America (2nd edn, 1772). The library at Bengeworth was apparently sold to the Birmingham bookseller James Wilson (see BL MS Egerton 3047). 2: Crosby Gaige (1882-1949), of New York, Broadway theatre producer and writer and food and drink; with his letterpress label "From the Books of Crosby Caige". 3: Philip C. Duschnes, bookseller of New York, with their small gilt trade label inside the back cover. 4: Sir Giles Rolls Loder, 3rd Baronet (1914-99), horticulturalist, of Leonardslee, near Horsham, West Sussex, with his armorial bookplate; his ornithological books were sold at Christie's, 9/2/1999. 4: Wheldon & Wesley, bookseller's of Codicote, Hitchin, Herts., active 1921-2004, with their trade label inside the front cover.


Literature: Rousseau (George), The Notorious Sir John Hill: The Man Destroyed by Ambition in the Era of Celebrity (2012).

Stock Code: 225247

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