One of the most influential botanical works ever produced was the multi-volume Icones Plantarum (‘Images of Plants’), begun by Sir William Jackson Hooker (1785–1865) in 1837. Ten volumes were produced under his authorship, and we are now reissuing them. The series was continued by his son (and successor as Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew), Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817–1911).
William Hooker (an account of whose Life and Labours was published by his son in 1903) was introduced to botany by his father, an enthusiastic amateur, and though his teenage years he became familiar with the flora of East Anglia, discovering a hitherto unrecorded species of moss in 1805. Two important things happened in 1806: he was elected to the Linnean Society, and he came of age, and into a considerable inheritance from his wealthy godfather, William Jackson, a brewer and farmer of Kent. He decided to use his enhanced income to devote himself to botany, concentrating first on northern Europe: he explored Scotland and the Isles, and then went on an expedition to Iceland sponsored by his patron Sir Joseph Banks (hurray!), which nearly ended in disaster when the ship caught fire on the return journey; the crew survived, but Hooker’s notes were destroyed. He managed to reconstruct them with the help of Sir Joseph’s unpublished record of his own 1772 visit to Iceland, and published his account in 1811. He continued to study plants, catalogue herbaria and build up his own collection while at the same time managing the business which ensured his income, until in 1820 (again with the sponsorship of Sir Joseph) he was made Regius Professor of Botany at the University of Glasgow.
The range of his activities at Glasgow was remarkable (especially since he had had no previous experience of academic life): lecturing and teaching, leading field trips, the preparation of detailed illustrations as teaching aids, publishing major works on the specimens brought back from exploratory missions such as those of Beechey, editing Curtis’s Botanical Magazine and starting his own Botanical Miscellany. But while all this was going on – and his family of two sons and three daughters was growing – he was also adding sheet after sheet to his collection of pressed, dried plants: his herbarium. When, early in Queen Victoria’s reign, a government enquiry looked into the state of Kew (which after the deaths of George III and Sir Joseph had gone into decline), it was decided to re-develop the gardens into a national centre for research into plants, which would both investigate, categorise and propagate unfamiliar species, and aid the mother country and the new colonies with practical horticultural advice. Sir William (he had been knighted in 1836) was appointed Director in 1844, at the age of fifty-seven.
By this time, Volumes 1–8 of the Icones had been published. The subtitle of the series is Figures, with Brief Descriptive Characters and Remarks, of New or Rare Plants, Selected from the Author’s Herbarium – and the author’s herbarium was by this stage so large that it took up one entire house at Kew: Hooker and his family moved into another one. The books themselves are of small format, and consist of a black-and-white illustration on the right-hand page, and a botanical description facing it on the left, with one hundred plants in each volume. Sometimes the image is a single one of the plant: in other cases, details of the flowers, leaves, seedheads or roots are also shown. The botanical name and a description (in Latin and using Linnean taxonomic vocabulary) are followed by a note on the habitat and (usually) the name of the botanist who discovered the plant (Mr Douglas with a Polypodium from the Sandwich Islands, and many plants from Monterey, California; Professor W. Jameson, the Scots scientist and explorer of the natural history of South America; and (in later volumes) ‘Hook. fil.’ and Mr C. Darwin). Other published descriptions – if any – of the plant are given and Hooker also makes comments (in English) and notes instances where his own opinion of the plant’s identity and taxonomy differs from those of other botanical authorities.
The name of ‘W.H Harvey Esq.’ appears occasionally as the illustrator. William Henry Harvey (1811–66), a good friend of Hooker, became professor of botany in Dublin, and Director of the Botanical Gardens at Glasnevin; a lot of his time was taken in producing accurate drawings for his own and other people’s publications. But the bulk of the illustrations were Hooker’s own.
Volume 10 (plants 901–1000) was published in 1854, and may have been though of as the final volume: it contains an index ‘to the plants contained in the whole work’. However, subsequently ‘Hook. fil.’ (and later his own successors at Kew) took over the series, using other herbaria acquired by Kew, and it finally consisted of forty volumes, and set the pattern for similar systematic publications of flora worldwide. When Sir William died, he offered his own herbarium and library to the nation, and Kew purchased them in 1866. The herbarium, according to the ODNB, consisted of rather more than the 1,000 sheets already published; the library contained 4,000 volumes; and his letters – about 29,000 of them and involving 4,400 correspondents, mostly botanists from all over the world – were bound up in 76 volumes. Another example of the incredible dedication and industry of the Victorian person of science.