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William Curtis (1746-1799)

William Curtis, the founder of Curtis's Botanical Magazine, grew up in Alton in Hampshire. Even as a boy Curtis was a keen natural historian. He trained as an apothecary but had little inclination for his profession and sold his share of a prosperous practice. Encouraged by friends, he bought an acre of land in Lambeth, with the intention of creating a garden in 1771. Two years later Curtis became the Demonstrator of Botany at Chelsea Physic Garden. However, there is evidence that Curtis began to neglect his duties at the Garden and he resigned in 1777.

Curtis was at this time preoccupied by his work on Flora Londinensis (1777-87). This was an ambitious project to depict every plant species growing within 10 miles of London. His ultimate plan was to depict the entire flora and fauna of Great Britain. He decided to give up his work as an apothecary entirely and to work only on his garden and flora. He applied to several of his wealthy friends for a loan of £50 so that he could support himself. 72 parts were published between 1775 and 1798, each with six plates. Unfortunately Curtis made little money from Flora Londinensis and he was forced to apply to Lord Bute for a further loan. The slow rate of publication and the limited number of subscribers meant that, despite Curtis's best efforts he was forced to discontinue publication in 1798. Nevertheless it was considered one of the finest illustrated floras and the scrupulously accurate illustrations attracted much praise.

Although Flora Londinensis had proved such a financial burden, in 1787 Curtis launched a new periodical, the Botanical Magazine, illustrating new species that had recently been introduced to Britain. The magazine was aimed at "such ladies, gentlemen and gardeners, as wish to become scientifically acquainted with the plants they cultivate." " The most ornamental foreign plants, cultivated in the open ground, the greenhouse, and the stove, will be accurately represented in their natural colours." The Botanical Magazine appeared monthly and each issue contained three hand-coloured engravings. It was an immediate success and sold 3000 copies a month. Edwards, Kilburn and Sowerby were the chief artists for the Botanical Magazine in the early years of publication. New species arriving from South Africa, Australia, China, Japan, India and the West Indies were featured. William Curtis boasted that whereas the Flora Londinensis had won him "praise", the Magazine had "bought him pudding".

Meanwhile Curtis had continued work on his garden at Lambeth and in 1779 he opened it as the London Botanic Garden. He was generously presented with plants from the royal garden at Kew, Chelsea Physic Garden and the gardens of Lord Bute.

Curtis also offered a library to the 40 subscribers, who each paid a guinea a year. Curtis has been described as a man of vision and purpose and a man of energy and ideas but he was criticised by his friend Samuel Goodenough for perpetually forming some new design or other, without completing any one.

Article Date: 22 January 2010

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