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A Cornucopia Of Fruit & Vegetables – Book Review

Delve into the fascinating, pictorial world of 18th-century edible produce with this colourful compendium of botanical artwork. Reviewer Katy Merrington is cultural gardener at The Hepworth Wakefield.

A Cornucopia Of Fruit & Vegetables
by Caroline Ball
Bodleian Library, £15
ISBN 978-1851245666

Blushing peaches, sturdy turnips, hairy carrots and pink-veined cabbages all grace the pages of this trimly digestible picture book. Selected fruit and vegetable portraits have been chosen from the weighty volumes of the Phytanthoza Iconographia. This historic A to Z of plant life was published in four volumes between 1734 and 1745 by ambitious apothecary Johann Wilhelm Weinmann, who sought to portray and describe thousands of plants in a vastly encyclopaedic work.

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Weinmann employed a succession of talented artists, writers and printmakers to collaborate on the project and the mezzotints and hand- coloured etchings reproduced here have a soft and faithful clarity that belie their age. Each fruit and vegetable specimen sits succinctly on its own white page, an archetype, an object separated from the conditions in which it grows, yet ripe and swollen with life.

The plant portraits are presented unnamed and severed from the Latin and German text that originally accompanied them. A key at the back of the book provides the names and you must flip back and forth in a game of identification. The illustrations therefore stand alone, serving to highlight their compositional eloquence – some like decorative motifs, with looping tendrils and meandering stems, others detailed and singular, as they capture the totality of a kohlrabi, or the life cycle of an asparagus stem.

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The book begins with an introductory essay, giving the reader a useful glimpse into Weinmann’s career and his mammoth undertaking of botanical study. This mini- hardback is a mere handspan across and doesn’t attempt to profile the featured fruit and vegetables within the context of 18th-century culture or cuisine. Rather the book is a taster of the Iconographia’s celebrated artwork, and a beautiful catalogue of the colours, shapes, forms and patterns found in edible plants.