Taking Leaves out of Books

We’ve had a protracted autumn. Even now, trees nearby are still giving up their leaves.

Autumn leaves of many colours lie on the ground
Leaf fall in the city

When I began this blog, I wanted to record and share my own treasured library. Here’s one of my oldest books, with a recently acquired bookmark.

Old book cover with gum leaf on top
The Language of Flowers and leaf bookmark

Floriography, communication through the symbolism of flowers and plants, has been part of many cultures but became very popular in the 19th century.

I probably acquired this little gem 45 years ago at an op shop or church jumble sale, both rich sources of ornate but arcane books. (I still regret letting Practical Taxidermy go.) Published by Frederick Warne and compiled and edited by the modest L.V. , it is a vocabulary. The first part is the names of plants and flowers arranged alphabetically, with meanings; the second part is reversed with the meanings first. It’s tempting to think of the avid Victorian suitor hunting through the garden, book in hand, for the right mixture for their bouquet.

Two pages of an old book with messages coupled with names of flowers and plants
Language of Flowers vocabulary doublespread

Gorse doesn’t get a mention in the vocabulary, but I already knew its meaning from this entry in Cecily May Barker‘s Alphabet of Flower Fairies. (Those who know me well will be surprised to see the F word spoken of approvingly here. These are the original, and the only, for me.)

Picture and text from a children's book about fairies
When gorse is out of blossom, kissing’s out of fashion

As with other blog posts though, I’ve fallen in love with someone else’s book.

Books have been given as prizes in schools, probably as long as they have both existed. I recently spent a very pleasant afternoon with my friend Jean looking at her book, originally awarded to her great-grandmother over 140 years ago.

Brown book cover with gold embossing detail showing birds and plants
Cover of Pictorial Beauties of Nature

A sumptuous example of Victorian publishing, the cover’s gilt shows wear by its owner Jane Longmore. She attended the St Kilda Girls’ School of Art and received it as 1st Prize for Sketching from Nature in 1874.

A handwritten inscription inside a book cover
Miss Longmore – 1st Prize Sketching from Nature

Jane used her skills in later life to paint landscapes on the unconventional canvas of leaves. They were plentiful around her marital home in Lilydale.

A framed picture of the Australian bush painted on a large gum leaf
Leaf painting by Jane White nee Longmore

This is not a good photograph – it doesn’t do justice to the detail in this landscape, rendered on a leaf approximately 20cm tall and 12 cm wide. I particularly like the way the stem leads my eye into following the wagon on the path through the trees.

As Jean and I paged through Pictorial Beauties of Nature, it became apparent that the book was more than instructive theory to Jane : she had used the book to prepare her canvases as well. The tannins in the leaves have left their impression more than a century later.

Book open to show identical leaf imprints on printed pages
Symmetical leaf impression

To press the leaves, to ensure that the leaves were dried absolutely flat, Jane would have put weights (perhaps other books) on top of Pictorial Beauties. This has taken its toll on the binding and pages, including coloured plates,  have come loose. One plate though still has its original protective tissue.

Colour picture of green leaves with red and white berries
Holly & Mistletoe plate in full colour

As well as keeping the colours beautifully vibrant, this has unintentionally created another print.

Sepia impression of illustration of plants
Holly & Mistletoe imprint on tissue

According to The Language of Flowers, holly stands for ‘foresight’, and mistletoe for ‘I surmount difficulties’. Appropriate for the mother of several children, raising them in an isolated settlement while her husband was away for weeks and months. She used her training, and the prize for it, as a springboard to her artmaking in later life. Jean and I think that we found the impression left by the painted leaf here.

Open pages from a book show the brown imprint of a leaf
Original pressing of Jane’s leaf for painting

My leaf art won’t last to hang on my great-granddaughter’s wall but I’ll think of Jane when I look at it. And will keep the gumleaf away from impressionable books.

Dead autumn leaves with holes stitched onto scraps of cloth