William Hooker was the finest English painter of fruit and subtlest transcriber of structure through technique. The Pomona Londinensis is his masterwork, a collection of 49 hand-colored aquatint engravings of the choicest fruits to be found in the markets, private gardens, and nurseries of Regency London. Hooker was official draughtsman to the Horticultural Society of London, precursor of today’s Royal Horticultural Society, a post that required some attention to flowers, but fruit was his specialty – fruit on the bough, not as museum or market specimens. Seldom has the weight of suspended fruit, the spring of cherry stems, or the background of foliage been so unerringly conveyed. Hooker even compounded a special pigment for the leaves, still sold to artists as “Hooker’s Green.” As a pomological illustrator he was fortunate in his era. The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries marked the golden age of fruit growing among wealthy amateurs, ensuring a supply of specimens to paint and of customers for the published plates. It was also a period of fine printing, by such masters as Didot, Bulmer, and Bensley, in which typography complemented draughtsmanship. With a colored plate facing a leaf of letterpress, the well-proportioned block of well-inked type could respond to the shape of the engraving, creating page-openings of almost unparalleled beauty. This Octavo Edition is reproduced from one of the rare copies with a higher finish, printed on large paper (further enhancing the effect, as with a matte), from the Library of the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.
The original book imaged for this digital edition:
16 3/4 x 13 1/4 inches (425 x 337 mm)
The fruits of Pomona Londinensis were metropolitan fruit grown against walls, or on standards – manicured trees with single trunks, rather than the sprawling veterans of an ancient orchard. This individual attention fostered the production of urban or suburban fruit that is almost immaculate: a few trifling blemishes are all that remind the viewer of ordinary country specimens of the time. But the beauty of Pomona Londinensis does not reside (as so often with photography) in the glory of the actual models, but rather with Hooker’s extraordinary sense of the weight of suspended fruit, and his unerring transcription of structure through technique. The buoyancy of the tiny strawberry that a few dewdrops would cause to bow, the spring and tension of cherry stems, the equilibrium of the planetary apple balanced on the bough are conveyed with a sureness of touch achieved by no other fruit painter. Hooker viewed his subjects with a gathering as well as an artistic eye, sometimes looking up into the tree, and ever sensitive to the way in which a peach must be stroked from the bough, or the pear gently lifted.
The appreciation of fruit in the nineteenth century was finely balanced between the kitchen-garden taste of the previous century and the excessive finish of the present, in which perfectly complexioned apples ripple their polished flesh like miniature musclemen. In that era before chemical sprays, when virus and bacterium were terms not yet coined, and when fruit trees were protected from pests only by luck and the haphazard treatments of the gardener, blemishes and defects were considered an essential part of the fruit and indeed a distinctive aspect of their beauty. Even in the depictions of prize fruit by such elegant draftsmen as William Hooker and Pierre-Joseph Redouté, the specimens are often marked by scars and blemishes that would make them unmarketable today. This toleration and even appreciation of imperfection does not reflect a lack of concern for appearance, but rather a heightened awareness of surface quality. The fruit painter concentrated on conveying to the viewer the blemish and the bloom, the oiliness of skins or resistance to polish, traits for which each artist had his own distinctive technique in imitation.
Hooker was closely attentive to the carriage of each leaf, to its complementary role as companion or protector – like a nest for eggs. His feeling for leaf and underleaf is matched only by the Moravian entomologist Jan Christiaan Sepp, to whom they were also food, albeit for caterpillars. Hooker compounded a special pigment of Prussian Blue mixed with Gum Gamboge for their rendition, a color still widely sold as Hooker’s Green. Hooker’s plates were color-printed, as often at the time, especially in France, but he preferred aquatint to their favored stipple. His blemishes and blushes were improvised anew at each hand-coloring, his sunspots polished to translucence. Hooker recorded aspects of the fruit in painter’s terms – russeting as aquatint and lenticels as drops of color that dried in a ring around the edge.