In a turbulent age, when the political connections that assured advancement in one decade could guarantee beheading in the next, the Belgian flower painter Pierre Joseph Redouté (1759-1840) led a charmed life, his exquisite craftsmanship appreciated as much by the Empress Josephine as it had earlier been by Marie Antoinette.
There was a temporary glitch in the mid-1790s, however, when Redouté was left without a partner to furnish scholarly captions for his botanical paintings. In earlier years he had collaborated with the amateur botanist Charles Louis L'Heritier on a series of much-admired books. But L'Heritier was in such serious financial strife in the half-decade after the French Revolution that he had no leisure to contemplate the finer details of plants and thus withdrew from a planned publication on succulents, even though Redouté had already completed many illustrations.
The impasse was overcome by a professor at the Musée d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris, who introduced Redouté to a brilliant young student, Augustin Pyramus de Candolle (1778-1841), who had recently arrived from Switzerland. Plantarum succulentarum historia, was the first in a series of learned treatises that established de Candolle's reputation as the foremost botanist of his age and one of the greatest of all time. In the first decade of the nineteenth century he was invited by the French government to conduct a botanical and horticultural survey of all France. In later years he taught at the universities of Montepellier and Geneva.
Plantarum succulentarum historia was hailed as Redouté's masterpiece too. As well as contributing most of the original paintings (a few were done by his younger brother Henri Joseph), he prepared the copperplate engravings using a new pointillist or ‘stipple’ technique that was his own invention. Instead of the continuous lines favoured by other engravers, Redouté preferred a succession of finely spaced dots. His method, he successfully demonstrated, allowed different inks to be held on the plate simultaneously, thereby enabling a coloured image to be printed from a single plate rather than several. A perfectionist, Redouté added some hand-done touches after printing.
Although the exquisite quality of the illustrations is universally acknowledged, Plantarum succulentarum historia has also been described as a ‘bibliographic nightmare’. It was originally issued in parts and de Candolle and Redouté kept adding instalments decades after the first bound volumes appeared. Thus it is exceptionally difficult to say what constitutes a complete copy. Donated by Sir George Grey, the Library's copy is a large folio volume containing 144 plates.