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The ‘Orchid Hunters’ display is in full swing here at Cambridge University Botanic Garden, but it’s not just in the Glasshouse Range that these stunning blooms can be found. There are some rather special orchids here in the Cory Library, depicted on the pages of the enormous four volume Reichenbachia.
It was Henry Frederick Conrad Sander, royal orchid grower to Queen Victoria, and once hailed as ‘the Orchid King’, who commissioned this extraordinary work. German-born Sander owned a now legendary orchid import business and nursery in St Albans, which became the focus of orchid culture in late nineteenth century Europe. In 1886 he commissioned Henry George Moon to paint illustrations for a new set of books in which he intended to represent naturalistically and at life-size all classes and types of orchid, accompanied by descriptions and notes on their culture by Heinrich Gustav Reichenbach, a leading German orchidologist. Sander first advertised the project in an issue of the Gardener’s Chronicle on 12 June 1886 (pictured), and in 1888 the first set of plates was delivered to subscribers. The work was completed in 1894, by which time 192 plates illustrating 205 orchid species and hybrids had been issued in two series, and the work had become known as Reichenbachia, in honour of the now deceased Reichenbach.
The books were produced at fantastic expense, indicative of Sander’s consuming passion for the subject rather than his financial acumen! The stunning plates were produced by chromolithography, a process in which the page is passed through the printing press many times, each printing adding a different layer of colour to the illustration. The final affect is astonishing! The plates are of such high quality, so closely resembling the original paintings, that the fate of many copies of the Reichenbachia has been to be broken up and the plates sold as individual prints for framing and hanging. This makes it all the more thrilling for us here at the Garden to have a complete set of the volumes, purchased in the 1940s with funds derived from the generous bequest of Reginald Cory, for whom the library is named.
If you’ve not yet had the chance, do visit the Garden before the 13 March to see the wonderful ‘Orchid Hunters’ display in the Glasshouse Range. This year the display focuses on the exploits of a group of plant hunters commissioned by Sander to bring back new orchid species, so you’ll have the chance to learn more about the man behind Reichenbachia, and the extreme lengths the hunters went to in order to bring back the amazing plants illustrated on its pages.
To learn more about the Cory Library visit our pages on the Garden’s website, and follow us on Twitter (@corylibrary). If you’ve got any queries or would like to visit, please drop me an email: email@example.com.
Jenny Sargent, Cory Library Manager, Cambridge University Botanic Garden