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A Lifetime of Flowers, a Library of Books

Blog Posts

A Lifetime of Flowers, a Library of Books

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The nurseryman Robert Furber (c. 1674-1756) was a pioneer in utilizing botanical art to advertise his plant varieties. Based in Kensington, a neighborhood in London, Furber owned and ran a successful nursery garden that provided plants both native to England and imported from around the world. He was the first person in England to use such extravagant illustrations in his advertising pamphlets, and these images remain iconic for their beauty and detail.

Twelve Months of Flowers depicts floral arrangements that represent the flowers Furber grew by month, beginning with January. As well as this volume of flower arrangements, Furber produced a series titled Twelve Plates with Figures of Fruit, analogous to the flowers but displaying Furber’s pomological products; and a smaller volume titled A Short Introduction to Gardening, which supplements the information in the other two. Furber’s grand depictions of fruits and flowers enticed customers at the same time that they became classic works of botanical illustration.

At Oak Spring, Bunny Mellon viewed the library not as holding static works of art history but instead as a dynamic source of ideas and knowledge. In keeping with her wishes, the Oak Spring Garden Foundation supports both library research and knowledge about gardens and horticulture. Throughout this year, we’ll be highlighting the links between the landscapes of Oak Spring and the plants on the page. We’re excited to have you join our interdisciplinary discovery.

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At the end of #NationalLibraryWeek (and, in fact, on #PlantAppreciationDay), we want to take some time to celebrate not only the beautiful botanical volumes that fill the shelves of the Oak Spring Garden Library, but also the brilliant eye of our founder, Bunny Mellon. Mrs. Mellon’s artistic and design vision appears throughout the Oak Spring Garden Library (a building she designed; see our Instagram post from earlier this week). Seeing these shelves and tables laden with rare volumes from around the world – the result of a lifetime of careful collecting and curating – it’s hard to imagine a time when Bunny Mellon wasn’t a book collector.

But, of course, there was: Robert Furber’s The Flower Garden (a similar volume to the one we’ve been looking at throughout this year) was Mrs. Mellon’s first book. Already interested in plants and gardening, Mrs. Mellon acquired the book when she was not even a teenager. This book was a smaller volume than the Furber pictured above, a work meant for a wider audience than the initial catalogue recipients. In regards to collecting books, Mrs. Mellon wrote, “My collection of books gathered over the years since my childhood was picked one by one for its unique qualities, not as part of a long list of well-known flower books.” During Bunny Mellon’s lifetime these books were used as resource materials just as much as they were studied for their beauty and historical significance.

While she began her collection with an English volume, Mrs. Mellon eventually focused more on French work than English. An avid Francophile, she designed the main Oak Spring residence and garden to be reminiscent of a small French village, even learning French in order to read the original manuscripts teaching French gardening styles. This French interest was not limited to the contents of the Library and the formal gardens here at Oak Spring: Mrs. Mellon even helped restore the potager du Roi (the King’s Kitchen Garden) at the palace at Versailles.

The global dimensions of Mrs. Mellon’s collection, with works ranging from Asia to
North America to Europe and beyond, show both her eclectic interest and the globalized context of botany. Many great botanical volumes (by figures such as Joseph Hooker, Albertus Seba, and Robert Furber himself) arose from the global trade in plants that resulted from European colonial powers sailing around the world. In this April Furber plate, for example, there appear flowers whose origins lie in Turkey and China, among many others. Nurserymen such as Furber exemplify the connection between global networks of trade and science, as species that were new to the Western world became valuable commodities upon their arrival in Europe. Just as the plants Furber presents in his beautiful Twelve Months of Flowers catalog represent the confluence of global trade routes and increasingly globalized knowledge, so too do Bunny Mellon’s library and garden. Mrs. Mellon’s inquisitive mind and worldwide contacts brought a rich variety of cultures and biodiversity to this patch of northern Virginia.

But most of all, Furber captured in his illustrations qualities of whimsy and wonder that captivated Bunny Mellon throughout her life. In the foreword to the 1997 An Oak Spring Flora, Mrs. Mellon says that the presence of flowers “inspires our tired spirits with their fragile being,” allowing the human mind “to go beyond its earthly limits.” With the aid of texts such as Furber’s Twelve Months of Flowers and The Flower Garden, gardening and design became the concrete results of Bunny Mellon’s powerful, visionary imagination. Oak Spring’s gardens, grounds and architecture embody the legacy of the works contained within the Garden Library.