Wednesday, July 2, 2014

A Precious Little Book from 1820

One reason I love old ephemera, is that now and then I find true treasures. A while back, we found this marvelous little book … Plants Quadrupeds Birds. It is fully done by hand … all the text is hand printed in watercolor ink and it contains six ink and watercolor illustrations as well.

This little book is written and illustrated by Robert Clement Sconce (1787-1846). It is signed simply “Sconce” on the inside of the front cover and was written to Sally from her Papa. Sally is Sarah Susanna “Sally” Sconce Bunbury (1816-1897), who later compiled, annotated and edited the work Life and Letters of Robert Clement Sconce (1861). Numerous passages in that book have Robert Clement Sconce discussing, in letters to his daughter Sally, his drawing and sketching using watercolors.

The book begins:

Does dear Sally know that while she has been amusing herself gathering Plants, and learning their names, she has been learning Botany? And when she picks a Flower to pieces and Papa shews her the Calyx, Petals, Staminae, and Pistils, what is it Sally learns? Why Botany!

Little Children do not often learn such things, but as dear Sally is very able to learn them, and as she has great pleasure in learning, Papa is very glad to teach her.

He goes on to cover all sorts of details of life in the garden. Beautiful descriptions of plants and flowers. Tales of foxes and wrens. Stories about creatures and critters. It is simply a beautifully written and illustrated book for children … and adults as well.

The patience of Sconce demonstrated in handwriting this book, with nary a flaw, is remarkable. That trait is also shown in how he “talks” to his daughter throughout the book. Sconce, while born and raised in England, spent most of his adult life in the Mediterranean on the British controlled island of Malta. He held numerous positions in the British Admiralty that afforded him time and space to dabble in botany and art. Although he was never wealthy, he and his family lived well and circulated in upper class English society.

His artistic talents were inherited by some of his children … Robert Knox Sconce (1818-1852), who was a minister and author; Herbert Sconce (1833-1867), who was in the British foreign service in Assam, India, and a superb watercolorist; and his daughter Sally, whose watercolors (now in museums in Australia, where she lived as an adult) document her family's travel and life experiences. Alas, other than the little illustrations in this book, I have not been able to locate any of the works of Robert Clement Sconce.

Book Testimony of Antiquity written by Robert Knox Sconce in 1848

Watercolor Painting by Sally Sconce Bunbury 1841 Back of Our House Darebin Creek W. Melbourne

Watercolor Arial Map of 1864 Seebsagur Tank Assam India by Herbert Sconce

The Plants Quadrupeds Birds book is 174 years old and it was read many times … but it now has condition issues. The pages, text and images are in very good condition, but the covers are detached and the binding is loose. It is currently with a conservator for restoration, rebinding and stabilization. I cannot wait to get this back. I love it.

Book as originally found

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