Spencer Museum of Art The University of Kansas

Welcome to the Spencer Collection

portfolio cover
  • William Sharp, artist
    born: Portsmouth, England, United Kingdom ; died: Milton, Massachusetts, United States ; active: United States
    John Fisk Allen, author
    active: United States
  • portfolio cover, 1854
  • Victoria Regia or The Great Water Lily of America with a Brief Account of its Discovery and Introduction into Cultivation
  • Where object was made: United States
  • board, cloth, letterpress
  • Gift of Hirschl & Adler Galleries, Inc., New York
  • Not on display
  • 1999.0213
Label Text

Exhibition Label:
"Big Botany: Conversations with the Plant World", 27-Mar-2018
The Amazonian water lily (Victoria amazonica) is famed for its huge leaves that approach 10 feet in diameter, and its flowers that can be up to a foot in diameter. Four of these prints document the first successful cultivation of the species, then known as Victoria regia in the United States. The text by amateur botanist John Fisk Allen (1807–1876) discusses the “discovery” and early encounters with the plant by Europeans traveling in South America. Allen cites the account of French botanist Aimé Bonpland, who accompanied German geographer, naturalist, and explorer Alexander von Humboldt on his travels. Bonpland discusses the Amazonian water lily and the flour derived from its seeds by the indigenous peoples of Argentina. In England, Victoria amazonica was first successfully propagated and coaxed to bloom in 1849. Gardener and architect Joseph Paxton was impressed by the structure of the great lily’s leaves, which reportedly was his inspiration for 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.