William Sharp’s sumptuous 1854 illustrations of The Great Water Lily of America, the “vegetable wonder” that owes it’s life to scarab beetles, has 10 foot wide leaves and flowers that smell of fruit.

Victoria Regia; or the Great Water Lily of America. With a brief account of its discovery and introduction into cultivation: with illustrations by William Sharp, from specimens grown at Salem, Massachusetts, U.S.A. 1854.
In 1849, the architect, paxton demonstarted the strength of the flower by having his daughter stand on one in a tank at Chatsworth. “On unbent leaf in fairy guise, Reflected in the water, Beloved, admired by hearts and eyes, Stands Annie, Paxton’s daughter…”- “The Gigantic Waterlily (Victoria Regia), In Flower At Chatsworth”.
London Illustrated News, 17 November, 1849.

The Victoria Regia; or the Great Water Lily of America, a gigantic water lily, was first discovered along the Amazon River and taken to Britain for cultivation. This so-called “vegetable wonder” was a spectacular flower. Nineteenth century commentators described with amazement the vast dimensions of its floating leaves, which could exceed ten feet in, that float on the water’s surface on submerged stalks up to 26 ft long. It is the largest waterlily in the world and its great white flower, which opened in the evening and closed again at dawn gives off a pleasant fruity smell.

These flowers can grow up to 40 cm (16 in) in diameter and have co-evolved with a species of scarab beetle. When the flowers open, the beetles are attracted by both the colour and the smell. When the flower closes at night, the fruity smell stops being emitted, and the beetle is trapped inside the flower when it closes.  When the flower has been pollinated its petals turn from white to a reddish pink colour. The beetles, who have been munching away on the flower’s pollen move off, covered in the stuff to cross-pollinated other flowers.

In 1853, Allen, a well-respected horticulturalist and author, cultivated a seed from the water-lily given to him by Caleb Cope, president of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, and the man in whose garden the water-lily first flowered in America on 21 August 1851. Working at his home in Salem, Massachusetts, Allen tended the seed from January to July, when, on the evening of July 21st, the flower finally bloomed. 

Motivated by this success, Allen hoped to share the wonder of the water-lily with a wider audience and engaged the services of William Sharp, a British-born artist and pioneer of chromolithography then working in Boston. Sharp had been practicing with the new technique of chromolithography as early as 1841, the first person to do so in the United States. 

Like a boat, the lily itself, with it’s complex, ribbed undersurface and leaves veining “like transverse girders and supports”, could support 3 adults standing on it. It was the architect, Paxton’s inspiration for The Crytsal Palace, a building 4 times the size of St. Peter’s in Rome.

William Sharp (1803–1875) was a British-born painter whose early chromolithographs weren’t very good to be fair. Over time, and determined to show the world the colourful and dramatic potential of the technique, he improved. With the process in its infancy, he knew it would take a work of tremendous ambition to popularise chromolithography. Allen’s book on the giant water-lily provided such a vehicle. The first plate of Victoria Regia is based on a sketch by Allen, the other five plates, which show the development of the flowers from bud to full bloom, are all Sharp. Superlative in concept, colour, and execution, they became the first benchmark of the art. 

“In the large water lily plates of Victoria Regia,” said one critic, “Sharp printed colors with a delicacy of execution and technical brilliance never before achieved in the United States” 

Reference; Widipedia; Great Flower Books (1990) p.69; Hofer Bequest 72; Hunt Printmaking in the Service of Botany 56; Nissen BBI 16; Reese. Stamped with a National Character p19; Stafleu & Cowan TL2 85; Tomasi An Oak Spring Flora p106.

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