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The Humble Potato: or, an exotic Christmas

The Humble Potato: or, an exotic Christmas

Dear ‘Picture this…’ readers,

In an abundance of puns Karen Brayshaw and I invite you to tuck into this tasty article as our Christmas offering to you. Many thanks to you all for your continued support and kind messages, here’s wishing you a joyful Christmas.

Jayne Wackett (Editor)

The herball or generall historie of plantes. … by John Gerarde …

London , Imprinted at London by Iohn Norton [colophon:] by Edm. Bollifant, for Bonham and Iohn Norton, 1597

Canterbury Cathedral Library H/G-3-21

The herball or generall historie of plantes : gathered by John Gerarde of London master in chirurgerie. Very much enlarged and amended by Thomas Johnson citizen and apothecarye of London.

London, Printed by Adam Islip Joice Norton and Richard Whitakers, 1637

Special Collections and Archives, University of Kent, qC636.GER

It seems unlikely, today, that the humble potato should ever have been a matter of intense interest. However, as people across the world sit down to their Christmas meal this December and pile those roasts onto their plate, it is worth considering the time when the potato was a hot topic.

potato 2

John Gerard’s Herball, printed in 1597, is thought to include the first ever illustration of the potato, referred to as ‘Battata Virginiana’ by Gerard, who reserved the name ‘potato’ for discussing the sweet potato, with which he was probably more familiar. As is widely known, the modern potato had its origins in America, although the use of the term ‘Virginian’, in this context, may be misleading, since it is thought that the tuber is Peruvian in origin. In any case, this item was highly exotic when this woodcut was made, which may account for some of the apparent anomalies in its depiction.

As a wood cut, one of around 1,800 in the volume, this appears to be amongst the 1% which were created for the book. Others were reused, a not uncommon practice, from different works, including many from Bergzabern’s Eicon plantarum of 1590. The nature of these woodcuts intended to show the form and nature of the plant, rather than simple likeness, and this is the reason why this image looks rather different to a potato plant one might see in a vegetable plot. Much comment has been made, in particular, on the size of the tubers depicted here, being very small for potatoes. This may relate to the way in which the woodcut was made, distorting relative sizes in order to include as much visual information as possible.

While Gerard reused much of the textual and image material in this book, there is evidence that he had his own potato plants. A well respected gardener, he also published the catalogue of the plants in his garden in Holborn, probably owned by Lord Burghley, the patron of this work. In the catalogue, he makes reference to Papus orbiculatus, roots from Virginia, which he noted grew well in the different climes of England. He therefore knew of the structure of the plant, which supports the idea of the image represented being somewhat idealised, for the education of the reader, rather than demonstrating his complete ignorance of the plant.

title 2

It had long been suspected that Gerard was so proud of the potato that he was depicted with a spray of the plant on the frontispiece to the Herball, which depicts a number of figures in various guises. However, recent work by Mark Griffiths, which has identified other figures on the title page, suggests that the plant Gerard holds is actually a pasqueflower. Also depicted on the frontispiece appears to be Lord Burghley, the patron of the work and of Gerard’s botanical work, and stalwart servant of Queen Elizabeth, after whom the Virginian territory was named.

title 1

While the accuracy of the Virginian potato’s image, and indeed its identification as Virginian, may be in doubt, there is more authenticity in this image than first appears. Some have argued that this edition of Gerard’s work, swiftly replaced with a more ‘scholarly’ edition after his death, should be read in the tradition of poetic anthology. Thus the aesthetic of the page and the accumulation of knowledge (or thinly veiled plagiarism) is part of the intention in creating this book. The Elizabethan era was, after all, an age of new discoveries of many kinds, and a time of significant change in England: gathering received wisdom alongside new knowledge was certainly an endeavour to be praised. Perhaps this Herball should be read in terms of promoting a new way in which to understand the world, with its precisely drawn and created images offering the reader a glimpse into a scientific mode of thought, accompanied by poetic description built on existing knowledge.

In the case of this image, description is key: the engraving, like so many others in the ‘Picture this…’ series, is in black and white, the cost of applying colour being prohibitive for all but the most high status books at this time. Without the addition of hand colouring, the image is only a half complete consideration of the plant. It requires Gerard’s description, usually making use of other works, to provide the full idea of the potato plant which was such a rarity. Some aspects of the plant remain inexpressible; its flowers, are ‘faire and pleasant’ but the ‘colour…is hard to expresse’, light purple, yellow and green are all listed. Even adding the text to the image, therefore, the mystery of this plant remains enigmatic: an exciting new plant, never seen before, which hails from the land to which the Virgin Queen had given her name. Perhaps, in this, there is a hint of the Elizabethan world view, of new and exciting times ahead: both the representation of past knowledge and exciting new discoveries.

The subsequent, ‘scholarly’ edition of the work was printed in 1633 by Thomas Johnson in an ‘amended’ form. This included twenty five images which differed from the original, including both the sweet potato, and the Virginian potato, now described as such in the text. This new image provides better scale for the tubers, a slender plant, and more space for the two images which have now been separated. No doubt in the intervening decades, the potato had become more common place and so required an image which suited the readers’ understanding, rather than a poetic idea of an exotic plant brought back from lands recently discovered for the Crown.

So this Christmas, as you pile those potatoes on your plate, spare a thought for the once exotic tuber which defied description in both image and text, first immortalised in print as part of a quest for combining old knowledge with new in the pages of Gerard’s Herball.

For more thoughts on the Herball and the Goose barnacle, take a look at October 2015’s article, by Jayne Wackett.

Jane Gallagher, Special Collections, Templeman Library, University of Kent

Editor: Jayne Wackett

Further reading

Arber, A., Herbals: their origin and evolution, (Glastonbury: 2011)

Griffiths, A., Prints and Printmaking, (London: 1996)

Griffiths, M., ‘Shakespeare: cracking the code’, Country Life (London: 20 May, 2015)

Knight, L., Of Books and Botany in Early Modern England: sixteenth-century plants and print culture (Aldershot, 2009)

Smolenaars, M., ‘John Gerard: herbalist’ in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

W.S.M., ‘The Introduction of the Potato into England’ in The Antiquary, v. 13 (April 1886)

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