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Watercolour over graphite with white highlights on vellum

27 x 21.5 cm



Possibly by descent to the artist's great-nephew Rev. Dr Friend, Dean of Canterbury;
His executor's sale, Christie's, London, 'A Catalogue of the Valuable and much Esteemed Museum of the late Rev. Dr Friend, Dean of Canterbury', 25.04.1777, possibly lots 25 or 26;

Private collection, Paris



We are indebted to Henrietta McBurney for her generous assistance in cataloguing the work and confirming the attribution following a thorough in-person examination. A more detailed digital catalogue on the work, written by Tom Mendel and Henrietta McBurney, including analysis of pigments and condition, stylistic elements and expanding on the context of this work, is available upon request. 



In early 2021, we were delighted to discover this extremely rare work by one of Britain's earliest and most gifted botanical artists. Following extensive collaboration and research with Dr Henrietta McBurney, the leading Marshal scholar, we were pleased to reattribute this work to Alexander Marshal. This sheet is an important addition to the body of known works by an artist who, in part due to the relative paucity of institutions that hold his works (fewer than half a dozen), remains little-known outside the world of botanical illustration. This is in contrast to many of his contemporaries in France and the Italian states, such as Nicolas Robert (1614–1685), Jean Baptiste Monnoyer (1636–1699), Giovanna Garzoni (1600-1670) and Jacopo Ligozzi (1547-1627).



‘Marshal brought a gimlet eye and a fine hand to his watercolours, in equal measure pleasing and educating his discerning and curious circle of botanists, horticulturalists and natural scientists…’ [1]



Alexander Marshal's date of birth remains unknown (162-?), but it is known that he died on 7th December 1682, leaving a widow, Dorothea, but no children. Marshal first appears as a mature artist in the late 1640s, so is thought to have been born prior to 1625. He was a merchant who had resided for some time in France during his career. It is highly likely that, during his time there, he encountered the celebrated work of Nicolas Robert (1614 - 1685), whose botanical illustrations were widely distributed in engravings, and which are, at times, very similar to Marshal’s own paintings.


Intriguingly, it appears that Marshal had no permanent domicile of his own. He is mentioned as living at Ham in 1650, London in 1651, and Islington in 1654 where he resided with the son of an Alderman Dewes, and he spent the last years of his life in Fulham Palace, home of his friend Henry Compton, Bishop of London.


Marshal was a talented horticulturist, entomologist, and amateur artist. He was one of a network of gardeners working in and around London in the middle of the seventeenth century and had links with the royal gardeners, John Tradescant (father & son), who had a garden at Lambeth, and Bishop Compton, who, as Bishop of London, developed an outstanding garden at Fulham Palace. The latter of these no doubt provided numerous examples of plants for Marshal’s study and Marshal may have contributed plants to Bishop Compton’s gardens himself.


Marshal’s careful study of plants was combined with an examination of the science of painting, and he wrote in 1667 to the Secretary of the Royal Society to discuss the methods he used for making pigments: “I thought Seven years agon [ago], that I Knew much, but I find, that practice shows me daily more than I Knew before…. the Searche of Colours has Cost me much time in finding out, and to know, which would hold Colour in water, and mixe well, else I had not used them in my booke, and am shure will bee as fresh a hundred years hence, as when you Saw them Last.” [2]


Many of the colours in Marshal’s paintings have remained vivid almost three hundred and fifty years later – no small feat by any artist’s standards, and especially impressive for one who had no professional training in this field. He has now become renowned as one of the earliest watercolourists, especially in Britain, a nation which lagged behind the Italian states in development of the medium during the 17th century, well before watercolour enjoyed its so-called ‘Golden Age’ in the 18th and 19th centuries. A great number of Marshal’s ingenious experiments derived pigments for paints from flowers, berries, gums, and roots, as well as from mineral pigments such as verdigris and arsenic.


Marshal's great nephew and eventual heir, William Freind, described him as a gentleman with "an independent fortune [who] painted merely for his Amusement". Nonetheless, already by 1658, Marshal was described in Sir William Sanderson's Graphice as a flower and fruit artist among "our Modern Masters comparable with any now beyond seas" [3]. Blunt and Stearn, in their comprehensive account of botanical illustrators throughout the centuries, count Marshal among the finest of the early painters of florilegia (‘flower books’), mentioning him alongside the German artists Johann Walther of Strasbourg, Johann Gottfried Simula, and the Dutch painter and botanist Rudolf Jacob Camerarius [4].



The present work shows a bouquet of fashionable florist’s flowers: a flamed tulip, a carnation, hyacinths, a star anemone, poppy anemones both open and closed , two centifolia roses and buds of morning glory. This sheet probably dates from a similar period as the group of thirty-three still lifes on vellum in the British Museum group, which also largely display equally modish tulips and anemones: most conspicuously, the composition is notably similar to all of the sheets in that group, with the flowers tied together by a coloured ribbon that appears to drift, as if lifted by wind, on either side. 


  • Notes & Bibliography


    [1] Gillian Darley, 'Amazing Rare Things' (exhib. review), in The Burlington Magazine, vol.150, no. 1264 (July, 2008), p.485

    [2] The History of the Royal Society of London for Improving of Natural Knowledge from Its First Rise, in which the Most Considerable of Those Papers Communicated to the Society, which Have Hitherto Not Been Published, are Inserted as a Supplement to the Philosophical Transactions, vol. 2 (ed. Thomas Birch), London (1756), p.231 [cf. Appendix]

    [3] William Sanderson, Graphice, London (1658), p.20

    [4] Wilfred Blunt and William T. Stearn, The Art of Botanical Illustration, London (1994), p. 330



    (i) Prudence Leith-Ross & Henrietta McBurney, The Florilegium of Alexander Marshal at Windsor Castle, (ed. Henrietta McBurney), London (2000)

    (ii) John Fisher, Mr. Marshal’s Flower Album - From the Royal Library at Windsor Castle, London (1985)

    (iii) Susan Owens, ‘“His curious booke of flowers in miniature”: Alexander Marshal’, in Amazing Rare Things: The Art of Natural History in the Age of Discovery (ed. Sir David Attenborough), London (2007), pp.106-137

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