Nature printing

by Elena Trowsdale, an English Literature and Language Finalist at Brasenose College on placement in Special Collections. Elena has been identifying some examples of ‘nature prints’ in Bodleian collections.

Beginning 25th July 2021, the Oxford Botanic Garden has been celebrating its 400th anniversary. The Bodleian Libraries have been collaborating with the Garden to identify historical books containing depictions of scientific specimens. Recently I spent a week in the Weston Library for Special Collections, investigating books which feature specimens depicted using a technique called ‘nature printing’. Related to this topic, there will be an event during summer 2022 entitled ‘Capturing Nature’, created by designer and printmaker Pia Östlund.

Nature printing, otherwise known as Naturselbstdruck [Nature’s self-printing], is an intriguing form of printing which is often breathtakingly lifelike. Using this method, prints are taken directly from the natural object itself such as a leaf, flower or even occasionally a bat. Alois Auer’s specific technique of nature printing, depicted in The Discovery of the Natural Printing Process: an Invention … (1853), involves impressing the natural object into a lead plate. Making a printable surface was done by electroplating the impression to create a copper plate, which was used to create the print on paper. This is an intaglio technique, where the ink rests in the shallow grooves of the lead plate rather than on the higher surfaces. However, in my investigations I have chosen to also study nature prints which fit the definition more loosely. Out of the examples I have found, some are taken from directly applying ink to the natural item, some may incorporate photographic printing techniques and others are facsimiles of nature prints, made from woodcuts which used the original nature print as their primary reference. Some prints are hand coloured, others use coloured ink, and some are drawn upon after they have been printed.

In my investigations, I have found nature printed items dating back to Johann Hieronymus Knipof’s work in 1757. Some are more intricate than others, partially because some have used wet subjects and some dry, dry subjects tending to be easier to print accurately. My personal favourite is the work of Constantin von Ettingshausen. A compilation of his works in three volumes is housed in the Radcliffe Science Library. I ordered this to the Weston Library reading room and examined it closely, finding extremely intricate leaf prints which detailed their structure and veins perfectly. 

To compare different ways in which nature printing have been used and adapted, Francis Heath’s Fern Paradise (1875) can be compared with Thomas Moore’s Nature-Printed British Ferns (1859), H.B. Dobbie’s New Zealand Ferns (1921) and Peter Hutchinson’s Ferns of Sidmouth (1862).

Figure 2: Left to Right, plate 6 from Francis George Heath’s Illustrated Edition of The Fern Paradise (1875), print from Thomas Moore’s The Octavo Nature-Printed British Ferns (1859), cover of H.B. Dobbie’s New Zealand Ferns (1921) and first print from Peter Orlando Hutchinson’s The Ferns of Sidmouth (1862).

All of these books depict ferns using different, contrasting techniques- all of which fall under the blanket term of nature print. In his work, Heath discusses how his plates of ferns are originally taken from nature prints made through applying a fern to a plate of ink, which is why they appear like negative images of the blank space the fern creates. Then, Heath sent his nature prints to a printing house where they were turned to woodcuts. Moore’s ferns are seemingly direct nature prints, made using different coloured inks applied to the plate the ferns were imprinted onto, then with some additions such as the yellow seeds. The most intriguing aspect of Dobbie’s fern study is its cover, which has a gold embossed fern pressed into its binding. This fern appears exactly like a nature print, meaning a nature print was probably the reference image used by the embosser. Hutchinson’s fern is less detailed than the others. It was made by lithography and the fern was likely not dried out. Each of these techniques creates a different visual way to understand these objects, useful to scientists at the time as well as being aesthetically and historically meaningful to current researchers.

Fig 3: The final page of Henry Smith’s Specimens of nature printing from unprepared plants (1857).

Then, perhaps the most shocking example of nature printing I have found is Henry Smith’s Specimens of nature printing from unprepared plants (1857). This book’s final page is a nature print of a bat’s wingspan. This bat was obviously compressed it could be printed but remains incredibly detailed. From looking online, I have found that Smith’s other works contain other nature prints of animals, including multiple snakes. I find this way of preserving the likeness of animals to be slightly unsettling, yet extremely beautiful and evocative.

During my time researching nature printing in the Bodleian collections, I was granted the privilege of spending a morning at the Bodleian bibliographic press with Richard Lawrence. We decided to experiment with nature printing techniques and printed a variety of items including a leaf and some insects. We used the classic method of imprinting a natural object onto a piece of soft lead, covering this with ink, wiping away the excess, then printing this lead plate.. The Natural History Museum of Oxford were kind enough to provide me with some waste specimens to be used as printing subjects.

Fig 4: Mine and Richard’s nature print of a leaf. From right to left: subject, lead plate, initial print, final print.

We quickly realised that dried leaves were much easier to print than insects. The printing objects needed to be flat and dry to avoid distortion within the press. However, we did manage to make some semi-successful butterfly prints.

This was an incredible process to have the chance to attempt. I now have a newfound respect for the nature printers of the past as this form of printing requires a huge amount of precision and technical skill. On 18 July 2022 visitors will be able to see this fascinating printing method demonstrated as part of the Oxford Botanic Garden programme.

All of the items I have referenced are accessible to order on SOLO and I will include the links to their web pages below. While I hoped to find more examples of nature printing across the many Bodleian collections, I am satisfied with the dozen or so that I managed to successfully locate. However, it is likely that many more examples exist in the collections but have not yet been located or catalogued. Hopefully, in the future, more of these beautiful items will be accessible for further study.

Fig 6: Page from Henry Smith’s Specimens of nature printing from unprepared plants (1857).

Thanks to Matthew Zucker, for the view of a list of  his own collection of nature-printed books, and for advice on the history of nature printing.


Constantin von Ettingshausen’s Über die Nervation der Blätter bei den Celastrineen (1857)[and also collected works]:

Francis George Heath’s Illustrated Edition of The Fern Paradise (1875):

Henry Smith’s Specimens of nature printing from unprepared plants (1857):

H.B. Dobbie’s New Zealand Ferns (1930):

Peter Orlando Hutchinson’s The Ferns of Sidmouth (1862):

Thomas Moore’s The Octavo Nature-Printed British Ferns (1859):

Secondary Resources

Hanquart, Nicole and Régine Fabri, ‘L’impression naturelle : une technique originale au service de l’illustration botanique. L’exemple des Chênes de l’Amérique septentrionale en Belgique du Belge Julien Houba (1843-1926)’, In Monte Artium (Journal of the Royal Library of Belgium), vol. 7 (2014), pp. 57-78. <>

Weber-Unger, Simon, Mila Moschik and Matthias Svojtka, Naturselbstdrucke: dem Originale identisch gleich (ALBUM VERLAG , 2014)