Octavo-sized volume (9.25" x 5.5") in three-quarter leather and black pebbled cloth boards, containing 97 hand-colored lithographed plates of fruit, flowers, and trees by William Henry Prestele (1838-1895), the youngest of three artist sons of the German botanical artist and master lithographer Joseph Prestele, who emigrated to the United States with his family in 1843. William Prestele is best known as the first staff artist of the Pomological Division of the United States Department of Agriculture, which hired in him in 1887 to produce botanically accurate, detailed watercolors of species and subspecies of fruit that could be grown in different parts of the country. He got his start as a full-time botanical illustrator two decades earlier, when he was hired by F.K. Phoenix, owner of the Bloomington (Illinois) Nursery, to make nurseryman’s plates--colored lithographs that traveling nursery salesmen used to show their customers the many varieties of fruit, flowers, and trees they could provide. Most production of nurseryman’s plates in the United States was done in Rochester, New York, but Phoenix—an advocate of “western trees for western orchards”--decided to publish his own, in order to display the varieties of trees, flowers, and shrubs he had carefully selected for their ability to withstand harsh Midwestern winters. In 1869, Thomas Meehan, editor of Gardner's Monthly and Horticultural Advertiser, commented favorably on the Bloomington Nursery's new color plates: "We have now before us a fruit piece...prepared by W.H. Prestele. We are in the habit of admiring European art in this line, and have often wished Americans could compete with it. We now have it here. We never saw anything of the kind better executed from any part of the world" (quoted in Ravenswaay, Drawn From Nature, 1984).
Although Prestele worked for Phoenix for at least four years, only one book of plates made during that time is known to have survived. After leaving Phoenix’s employ in 1871 or 1872, Prestele struck out on his own, continuing to make nurseryman’s plates. He lived in Bloomington until 1875 (when he moved to Iowa), but no examples his work from the period 1872-1875 are recorded in institutional collections or cited or reproduced in any published account of his life. We believe, therefore, that the book we are offering--which includes 81 plates bearing the imprint "Wm. H. Prestele's 'Pocket Edition' of col'd Fruit & Flower Plates, Bloomington, Ill."—contains some of the earliest surviving examples of William Prestele’s botanical illustrations, and the only ones from the first three years of his career as an independent illustrator and lithographer.
The book itself has no title page or publication information, and it appears to have been a working nurseryman’s specimen book, as many of the plates have handwritten prices written on them in pencil, indicating what a customer would have paid for the tree or flower depicted. There are erasures on the front free endpaper that, if they can be deciphered, may reveal the owner of the book. (The only word we have been able to read with certainty is “Clinton.” There is a Clinton, Illinois, about 24 miles from Bloomington). Of the 97 plates, 25 show varieties of apples and 16 show pears. Fruits represented in smaller numbers of plates include peach (7), plum (6), grape, cherry, currant, gooseberry, raspberry, strawberry, apricot, mulberry, and quince. Flower plates include hyacinth, gladiolus, bleeding heart, lily (two varieties), peony (two varieties), bouvardia, and rose (7 varieties). Trees and shrubs include horse chestnut, sweetshrub, magnolia, weigela, hydrangea, arborvitae, larch, juniper, spruce, pine, and two varieties of weeping willow. Most of plates that do not have the imprint noted above say either simply “W.H. Prestele" or "W.H. Prestele, Bloomington, Ill." Three include Prestele's name and also "C. Hamilton, Lith., St. Louis, Mo." As far as anyone knows, Prestele did not have his own lithographic press in Bloomington, as he later would in Iowa, and the printer of all but these three plates is unknown. The book is well-thumbed, with some light soiling and foxing, and the plates are more closely trimmed than one might like. The quality of the coloring is somewhat uneven; it is possible that some may have been done by Prestele’s younger sister, who is known to have assisted him. But many are quite beautiful, and all shed new light on the life and work of a significant American botanical illustrator. A link to additional images is available upon request.