‘Beauties of the Rose’ (1850-1853) and the author Henry Curtis (1820-1889)

Perhaps it is not surprising that many books about roses have been written by the nurserymen who cultivate roses for their livelihood. They are the people who have the knowledge to share with others. Can you imagine though what it must have been like in the 19th century drafting a book by hand? I find it difficult to imagine how these authors, and in some cases artists, were able to find the time and the inspiration to draft a knowledgeable tome, especially after they had been out in the elements all day propagating roses. In this beautiful book ‘Beauties of the Rose’ Henry Curtis, as well as writing the text, drew all the illustrations on stone so that they could be lithographed for this book, which has two volumes and thirty-eight hand coloured lithographic plates.

Beauties of the Rose by Henry Curtis
The Frontispiece from ‘Beauties of the Rose’ by Henry Curtis.

The library has two copies of ‘Beauties of the Rose’, in different bindings but whichever you saw you would know instinctively that within there were exciting treasures. Whether you chose the green and gold elegant binding with gold page edging or the plain green binding with marbled edging you would not be disappointed. The two books in the library are similar inside; a page of text followed by a tissue covered illustration. Comparable in format to the great works ‘Roses or a Monograph of the Genus Rosa’ (1805) by Henry C. Andrews and ‘Rosarium Monographia’ (1820) by John Lindley. Fortunately the text and illustrations have been protected well by the substantial bindings and the platesremain vibrant and clear.

Bindings of rose books
The two different bindings of the books in The Rosarian Library.

It seems that Henry Curtis drew the roses he sold in his nursery and wrote about them from personal experience. He admits to choosing them “to sit for their portraits when in their best trim” because he wanted to “pourtray our National emblem and Flora’s Pride” in its truest form. He suggests that “its many beauties of form and color have hitherto been so variously described, as to tend rather to confuse than to explain” and that “faithfully-drawn and colored portraits must convey a much better idea of this flower than any verbal description, however correct, more particularly as the catalogues of the four principal rose growers vary in most instances.”

Tea Noisette Rose Cloth of Gold
Tea Noisette ‘Cloth of Gold’.

These four principal growers he named as Rivers, Lane, Wood and Paul and before each of his descriptions he quotes from their catalogues the colour they attribute to the rose to show the variation. This does not appear to be a criticism by him but more a desire to justify why he has drawn each rose to accompany his text; so that he can offer a true likeness. Thomas Rivers and William Paul are two well-regarded felllow authors and it seems they knew of each other. Thomas Rivers recommends a rose, introduced by Henry Curtis, in his book ‘The Rose Amateur’s guide’ (1837) – the small but informative book solely dedicated to the cultivation of roses.

Hybrid Perpetual - Geant Des Batailles
Hybrid Perpetual – Geant Des Batailles.

Enjoying social history I love the way that the developments in printing and illustration can be followed through the succession of rose books from the beginning of the 19th century. The printing press at this time was still much as it had been when developed in the 15th century, with the size and style of type being limited. The press was of wood and this restricted the size of page and the pressure that could be applied. Change came around 1800 when the iron press was invented by Lord Stanhope. With more force and range possible a larger sheet could be printed. Further presses followed and a variety of printing styles made possible.

Hybrid Perpetual - Geant Des Batailles.
Text size and style could be varied when ‘Beauties of the Rose’ was written.

During the 18th century there had been a significant increase in the number of printers setting up outside London. This had been helped by the printing trade becoming separate from that of the publishers many of whom were still located in the capital. Each town had their own printers. The mechanical developments, the revolution in transport, the spread of literacy, the reduction in certain taxes all made possible a variety and complexity of printed matter. By 1860 the trade had divided into three with book printing being only one strand with newspapers another and posters, leaflets etc being the third.

Hybrid Perpetual - Caroline de Sansal.
Hybrid Perpetual – Caroline de Sansal.

The usual method of illustration was by printing with woodcut blocks but during the early part of the century changes were being made and engraving on metal plates became more usual. By 1850 lithography had become the norm for producing illustrations. It required the design to be drawn on the surface of a slab of a special limestone using ink or crayon with high grease content. The stone absorbed the grease, making the image water repellant. For printing the stone was sponged with water which was accepted only by the non design areas, then rolled with ink, which repelled by the damp stone, adhered only to the image.. Paper was laid on and the stone taken through the press. The designs were then coloured by hand. Lithography was the process which Henry Curtis used to illustrate his book whereas nearly 50 years before H.C. Andrews had engraved his designs on to copper plates to print his illustrations before colouring them. This in turn was a development from the woodcut illustrations that had previously been used but continued to be used in a number of books throughout the 19th century. As black and white prints they can be seen in a good percentage of the books about roses in this period, in particular the three books written by William Paul- ‘Roses in Pots’ (1844), ‘The Rose Garden’ (1848) and ‘Roses and Rose Culture’ (1874).

Rose illustration
An illustration from a woodcut block.

Although Henry Curtis drew all the designs himself he needed a printer to reproduce his work and for that purpose John Lavars of Bridge Street, Bristol was employed to be the printer of ‘Beauties of the Rose’. I do not know at which point Curtis’s skills met with the skills of John Lavars as on all the illustrations in the book it says “Drawn from Nature and on Stone by Henry Curtis, Roseries, Moorend, Bristol.” but it also says on the bottom of some of the illustrations “Lavars, Lith, Bridge St, Bristol”, indicating that printers became involved in the lithographic process. Although printers and publishers had been and were still occasionally one of the same in the case of ‘Beauties of the Rose’ the publishers were Groombridge and Sons of Paternoster Row, London. Volume One was published in 1850 and volume two in 1853. I presume, but do not know, that at this point they were bound as one volume.

Hybrid Perpetual 'Robin Hood'.
Hybrid Perpetual ‘Robin Hood’.

As can be seen from the details at the bottom of each illustration Henry Curtis, at this time, had a rose nursery near Bristol at Moorend. He later went into partnership with F.W. Sandford and opened a rose nursery in Devon, outside Torquay. He became well-known as a rose grower introducing the climbing ‘Devoniensis’ in 1858, a sport of the bush form which had been introduced earlier in 1841. There was some controversy surrounding the introduction of the climbing variety with some questioning whether it was really distinct from the original form. In an article ‘Climbing Devoniensis and Rose Sports’ written for the ‘Journal of Horticulture’ in 1865 Henry Curtis defends his introduction of a ‘new’ rose. His defence seemed to be partly triggered by the fact that after reading about the rose not being a distinct climber a customer had returned a package of 52 rose plants to him!

Hybrid Perpetual 'Baronne Prevost'.
Hybrid Perpetual ‘Baronne Prevost’.

From the horticultural literature of this period Henry Curtis seems to have become quite an influential rose grower. In 1877 the ‘Gardeners Chronicle’ reports that his nurseries exhibited a magnificent display of ‘Francois Michelon’ at the National Rose Show in St James Hall which was awarded a first prize. Also at this time his nurseries, The Devon Rosery, were offering a range of Standard and Dwarf Perpetual Roses, also Teas, Half Standards and Dwarfs budded on their Celine stock. It seems that the nurseries continued with his name up to and beyond his death in 1889. A rose catalogue from the nursery was published in 1894 but after this I have no further information.

Tea Scented 'Vicomtesse De Cazes'.
Tea Scented ‘Vicomtesse De Cazes’.

Sadly after having written and illustrated such a beautiful book Henry Curtis seems largely to have been lost to history. Unfair, I think, as William Curtis , the first editor of ‘The Botanical Magazine’ and a relative is comparatively well known and well remembered. There is even some discrepancy as to whether William Curtis was Henry’s grandfather or great uncle. Both suggestions have been documented but a historian at the Curtis Museum in Alton, Hampshire has convinced me that Henry was certainly not the grandson of William Curtis, the botanist. I cannot be sure of the relationship between the two only that the two were related.

It appears that Henry was the son of Samuel Curtis and the grandson of James Curtis, an apothecary. His great grandfather, John Curtis was also an apothecary. Samuel Curtis married Sarah Ann Caustin in 1801 and had thirteen children, number eleven of which was Henry, born in 1820. His birthplace is documented as Gamston in Nottinghamshire. With several apothecaries in the family (William Curtis, the botanist also started out by being apprenticed to an apothecary) it is not surprising that he had an interest in plants and flowers.

Hybrid Perpetual 'Amandine'.
Hybrid Perpetual ‘Amandine’.

As the writer and illustrator of this well loved book and for my research into the 19th century rose literature I would like to discover more about this man and the contribution he made to the horticultural world. I would like him to settle in history with William Curtis, the botanist, and not let him be over shadowed by the relation who started’The Botanical Magazine’.

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