Amy Pool was perusing a book on the history of botanical illustration when a citation for an 18th-century title caught her eye. A plant taxonomist at the Missouri Botanical Garden, Pool searched for the entry, Robert Sayer’s The Florist, in the garden’s library catalogue, curious to see if it had a copy. It did, and the book she found turned out to be a coloring book for adults — a centuries-old precedent of the ones being published today in a seemingly unstoppable trend. As it title suggests, The Florist contains engraved illustrations of flowers — 60 plates of them, from a demure-looking peony to a dancing iris.
Printed in London around 1760 by the publisher Robert Sayer, The Florist represents one of the earliest examples of coloring books found yet. It predates what some consider the first children’s coloring book, Kate Greenaway’s The Little Folks’ Painting Book, which the McLoughlin Brothers published in 1879. But it arrived over a century after the 1612 and 1622 two-part release of Albion’s Glorious Ile, a series of maps by engraver William Hole that nobles apparently loved to hand-color.
“My personal theory is that in this mid-18th-century time of worldwide exploration, ordinary people were very excited about natural history, and they wanted to participate in the creation of something not too dissimilar from the plates associated with new scientific discoveries,” Pool told Hyperallergic.
The Florist was intended, as its title page relays, “for the use and amusement of Gentlemen and Ladies.” But, unlike most contemporary coloring books, it wasn’t meant to soothe the mind or encourage limitless creativity; rather, it served more as a manual for those seeking to sharpen their artistic skills. The Florist was for serious adult colorists only, filled with detailed instructions on how to paint each flower strictly according to its natural colors. (Yes, paint — this was the pre-crayon and -colored pencil era, so aspiring artists would have used watercolors.) See the directions, for instance, for a gladiolus:
This flower is crimson, inclining to purple; begun with a string layer of carmine, and neatly shading with a mixture of carmine and prussian blue. The bottom of the flower is white, shaded with a greenish tinge, by a mixture of Indian ink and sap-green; neatly blending the carmine by it, by fine strokes of each color. The leaves and stalk, from the beginning of the flowers of the top, are a brown, made with sap-green and carmine.
The book also includes guidelines on how to mix pigments for flower painting, with mentions of flake-white, shades of red, blues like ultramarine and indigo, yellows, and even “gall-stone brown.” The owner of Pool’s copy, however, apparently never found the time to fill in its pages. She’s seen only one plate with “one smear of green,” though stains from pressed plants remain on some pages. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, fewer than 10 copies of The Florist exist in libraries, and the Yale Center for British Art does have a version that’s colored in.
Pool has also noticed that some of the book plates are signed by their engravers, including one Adam Smith and a Caspar Phillips. Far from the basic, black-and-white illustrations we’d expect to see in a coloring book, their images and the others resemble finished botanical studies, complete with careful shading — although the results are, as Pool said, “generally a little vague in floral anatomy.”
The library has since digitized and uploaded The Florist in its entirety to its website. Each page is available for download, so that you too can try your hand at coloring the spotted, drooping cups of a fritillary; the writhing, seaweed-like leaves of a Crown Imperial; or a soft-petaled rose, described in the book’s pages as “the favorite of the painters.”