Printed catalogues of the stocks of plants held by nurserymen were an innovation of the 17th century; none are known to have existed before the restoration.
The first approximations of nursery catalogues came in the form of advertisements
within published books; Leonard Meager, in his English Gardener, listed fruits available from Captain Gurle’s nursery at Spitalfields, while John Worlidge, in his Systema horticulturae (1688), included printed lists of stock from four nurseries.
Gradually, the larger firms began to issue their lists independently, and 18th-century catalogues from the firms of Christopher Gray, William Malcolm, Daniel Grimwood, and others are held in the Lindley Library.
Names and descriptions
The earliest printed nursery catalogues were simply lists of plant names available to buy from the nursery.
The first firm to include plant descriptions in their catalogues was the Covent Garden seed house, Barr & Sugden (later Barr & Sons, later Wallace & Barr).
Barr’s inaugural 1862 catalogue was attacked in the columns of the Gardeners’ Chronicle for mistakes in Latin and inaccuracies in advice; the correspondence was indexed under the heading ‘Catalogues, fat’, to indicate both the novelty and the perceived lack of necessity for a trade catalogue to include plant descriptions.
But Barr was not alone; James Veitch of Chelsea launched the first of his firm’s annual brochures of new plants the same year, again with detailed descriptions. The trend became the norm for all major companies by the 1870s.
Hardly any nursery catalogues were illustrated until the 19th century. If we do not consider Robert Furber’s Twelve Months of Flowers (1730) as a catalogue of his nursery, then the use of illustrations could be said to begin in 1771 with William Malcolm’s catalogue, which was ornamented by a frontspiece that included illustrations of his firm’s greenhouses.
The first nurseryman to issue a catalogue that included a few engraved plates with plant portraits was William Curtis, in his 1774 catalogue.
Once again, Peter Barr and James Veitch played the major role in popularising the illustrated catalogue.
The 1862 Barr & Sugden catalogue contained wood-engravings of some of the newly popular ‘subtropical’ foliage plants, and Veitch’s new plants catalogues had a wood-engraving on each page.
The technology of wood-engraving had developed tremendously in the 1840s and 1850s, so it was easier to produce an illustrated pamphlet in 1862 than it would have been a generation earlier. Thereafter, the development of the illustrated catalogue kept pace with the improvements in printing technology.
Seed houses rather than retail nurseries tended to lead the way, with James Carter, another Covent Garden firm, pioneering the use of chromolithographic wrappers in the 1870s. During the 1890s, Carters, Suttons, and Webbs all moved over to photogravure printing on shiny paper.
Some nurseries produced independent publications in addition to their catalogues, and so escaped the limitations that printing technology imposed on their mass-produced annual product.
E G Henderson of Maida Vale published three volumes of chromolithographed plates under the title The illustrated Bouquet (1857-64); H J Jones of Lewisham published The Chrysanthemum Album (1896), a quarto-sized volume illustrated with photographs of cultivars.
In the early 20th century, some firms (again, seed houses first) began to experiment with colour printing. Suttons began to include a few colour-printed pages in its catalogues before the First World War.
In the interwar years the company fell back for a while on solitary plates, while using chromolithographed gardens scenes by Beatrice Parsons as tipped-on cover decorations.
Other firms, like Watkins & Simpson, began to increase the proportion of coloured illustrations during the 1930s.
It was not until after the Second World War that coloured photographs spread through the catalogues of the wide range of nurseries, and not until the 1960s that catalogues printed entirely in colour began to appear, as a result of the improved offset photolithographic techniques then available.
Plant portraits in nursery catalogues have always sparked criticism over accuracy. As early as 1862, Barr’s catalogue was criticised for exaggerating the shape of a flower, and the geometrical regularity of various bedding plants as depicted in wood-engravings was criticised by William Robinson for taking the circle as the ideal form for flowers.
The difficulty of ensuring accuracy of colour in early photographic printing was a regular theme for complaint in the 20th century, and to the present day you can find examples of unrealistically blue conifers (but it would be invidious to name the perpetrators).
Most illustrations were, naturally, of plants; but, especially in the 19th century, some firms included illustrations of their glasshouses; and in the early 20th, this was followed in some cases by illustrations of trial grounds. Suttons issued a special brochure in 1906 on its potato trials, with photographs of piles of potatoes in a field.
Again, this sort of illustration was largely confined to seed houses, who competed with each other in the production of new vegetable cultivars.
Those nurseries that advertised a garden design practice, however, sometimes included photographs of their landscape work (e.g. Pulham of Broxbourne, William Wood of Taplow), or even, like Gazes of Surbiton, had a well-illustrated model garden within their premises.
Hardly any catalogues before the 19th century list prices, although an occasional firm issued a supplementary page with a price list (presumably treated as a piece of ephemera, as prices might alter more quickly than the stocklist).
Once the larger nurseries began to issue a new catalogue each year, the prejudice against listing prices fell away, and during the second quarter of the 19th century, the inclusion of printed prices became standard. As this was the period of the development of the railways, it quickly became standard as well for carriage prices to be listed.
Value for horticultural research
Trade catalogues are of obvious interest for anyone researching the history of commercial horticulture; they are a primary source for the history of individual firms, for the economics of the commercial plant trade, for the history of flower shows (many firms took pride in listing, and even illustrating, the awards they received at shows), and for aspects of the marketing of plants.
Historians of printing will also find them useful for the cross-section they offer of technological sophistication at different periods, from the polished and upmarket products of the major seedsmen to the cheaply produced lists of smaller provincial nurserymen (including, in the mid-20th century, such techniques as mimeography and Gestetner copying).
Historians of garden plants will find them a vital source, not only for detecting what was in fashion at a given period, but for tracking the introduction (and eventual disappearance) of cultivars. Today’s catalogues form the basis for the RHS Plant Finder, and are a major source for the checklists and registers of plant names that the RHS and other organisations compile.
They are also useful for determining the dates of introduction for exotic species. Indeed, several botanical names were first published in trade catalogues, and they are a subject of crucial importance for taxonomists, since a plant’s name is determined by its first publication.