Spencer Museum of Art The University of Kansas

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Lily leaf
  • William Sharp
    born: Portsmouth, England, United Kingdom ; died: Milton, Massachusetts, United States ; active: United States
  • Lily leaf, 1854
  • Victoria Regia or the Great Water Lily of America
  • Where object was made: United States
  • color lithograph
  • Mat Dimensions: 24 x 32 in
  • Gift of Hirschl & Adler Galleries, Inc., New York
  • Not on display
  • 1999.0213.03
Label Text

Exhibition Label:
"Trees & Other Ramifications: Branches in Nature & Culture," Mar-2009, Steve Goddard
William Sharp is credited with bringing chromolithography to the United States. His greatest achievement in this medium was a series of plates documenting, in progressive stages, the blooming of the enormous Amazonian Water Lily (Victoria amazonica) thereby commemorating the first successful cultivation of the species, then known as Victoria regia, in the United States. Less well known (no doubt because it is less colorful) is Sharp’s rendering of the underside of a leaf of the lily, showing the elegant branching of its veins. The strength of these rib-like veins reportedly inspired the design of the lace-like cast-iron structure of the Crystal Palace at the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London.

Archive Label 2003:
These bold and enormous color lithographs tell of the blossoming of the largest water lily in the world. The case directly in front of them contains the elephant-size folio cover and the letterpress narrative (also gifts to the museum by Hirschl & Adler Galleries) published with the lithographs in Boston, Massachusetts. William Sharp, credited with introducing color lithography in the United States, masterfully executed the lithographs here.

John Fisk Allen, the amateur botanist who owned the depicted Victoria Regia, prepared the text to accompany Sharp’s lithographs. Incorporated in that text is an historical account by Sir Joseph Paxton prepared for a memoir of the lily by Sir W. J. Hooker, published in London in 1851. The following rich description from that memoir appears at page 13 of Allen’s text: “On Thursday afternoon, at 4 o’clock, two of the outer flower leaves (calyx) sprung off with great force, and in three fourths of an hour from this time, the regal beauty of the waters had displayed its first stage of glory! As each broad petal unfurled itself, it fell partly backwards, until three distinct rows formed a cup of rare elegance and of apparently the whitest purity. The still air of the greenhouse was now filled with its rich perfume, as if it were some conscious Beneficence silently blessing all in its august presence. This chaste cup of ivory-like color was set off by the yet unfolded interior flower leaves (petals), betraying a few streaks of carmine tints, whose splendor was yet to be revealed.”

Sharp’s Plate 4 (first lithograph to the left in the second row) provides beautiful visual information for this description by Hooker of the intermediate stages of bloom.