Although it is said not to judge a book by its cover, when in 1856 the V&A (then South Kensington Museum) acquired a 16th century album of botanical watercolours by Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues, it was the binding (French calf with gold tooling) that prompted the purchase, leaving the watercolours inside almost forgotten for about 65 years. Yet, it was precisely thanks to this that these drawings have been preserved and still appear fresh and vividly coloured.
Le Moyne was employed in 1564 as the cartographer and official artist on a French expedition to Florida. As one of the first European artists to visit the Americas, he painted drawings of the flora, fauna and inhabitants of the New World, which were later published as engravings together with his written account of these adventures. The expedition ended in disaster, and once back in France Le Moyne was forced to flee to England following the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre (1572), when a wave of Catholic mob violence was directed against the Huguenots during the French Wars of Religion. In England, Le Moyne entered the service of the famous English explorer Sir Walter Raleigh and became acquainted with John White, the artist employed in the 1585 English expedition to Virginia.
In 1922, these 59 exquisite botanical watercolours were attributed to Le Moyne, which led to a rediscovery of his work. His drawings – characterised by a refined use of colour – move away from the religious symbolism commonly associated with plants during the medieval period towards a more naturalistic approach.
Here, you can explore the full album in amazing detail – in particular look out for the artist's signature; the faint outlines in the otherwise-blank sheets of paper; the watermarks; the elaborate decoration of the binding, as well as the delicate watercolours.