The botanical album of Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues

Although it is said one should not judge a book by its cover, when in 1856 the South Kensington Museum (later renamed the V&A) acquired a 16th-century album of botanical watercolours by Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues, it was its original late 16th-century French binding that prompted the purchase, leaving the artworks inside overlooked and almost forgotten.

watercolour, by Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues
(Left to right:) Pomegranate, watercolour, by Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues, French School, about 1575. Museum no. AM.3267Z-1856. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Snowdrops and lady butterfly, watercolour, by Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues, French School, about 1575. Museum no. AM.3267H-1856. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

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 the flora, fauna and inhabitants of the New World. In 1587, he died without having published on this topic, as was his intention. His drawings, translated into prints, and his written account of the ill-fated expedition were however used in Theodor de Bry's 1591 publication Brevis narratio eorum quae in florida americae provincia Gallis acciderunt. These engravings made Le Moyne's compositions famous, but few of the original drawings they were based on survive today.

His surviving original work mainly consists of botanical depictions of Western European flowers and fruits, like the ones found at the V&A. The sketchbook's binding and the inscriptions accompanying the drawings, in both French and Latin, suggest that the series was probably painted in France around 1575. The V&A sketchbook can be compared with an album, reputed to have been painted around 1585 in England, and now in the British Museum. Being a Protestant, Le Moyne indeed left the Continent and, by 1581, had settled in London, fleeing Huguenot persecution by the Catholics during the French Wars of Religion.

It was only in 1922 that these 59 exquisite watercolours were recognised as Le Moyne's work – his signature 'demorogues' appearing on the inside of the front cover and on folio 1. Following this discovery, the leaves with watercolours were cut out out of the sketchbook to be transferred to the Prints and Drawings department (Museum nos. A.M.3267a – 3267hh-1856). The binding, by then an empty shell, remained in the library (National Art Library, 3267-1856).

Explore Le Moyne's botanical album

Thanks to our digital reconstruction, you can now, for the first time since 1922, explore the full album in amazing detail. In particular, look out for the artist's signatures, the faint outlines in the otherwise-blank sheets of paper (see the lilies on f. v recto and the pear on f. vi recto), the watermarks; the elaborate decoration of the binding, as well as the delicate watercolours.

Some notes about the digital reconstruction

The order of the leaves in this reconstruction follow the pencil numbering in the upper top right corner of each painting, which must have been added when the leaves were taken out of the binding. The leaves left in the volume have all been numbered in Roman numerals. Ff. i and xv are flyleaves.

One leaf with the delicate pencil outline of a lily seen from various angles remained in the middle of the volume (f. v). We have here placed it after plate 51 (AM.3267DD-1856), based on a tentative count of the stubs left by the cut-out leaves before and after this leaf. This difficult exercise would however require a closer codicological examination, and the placement of this 'lily leaf' remains subject to caution.

Finally, some modern paper leaves were pasted into the volume when the watercolours were taken out: these have neither been digitised nor numbered in this reconstruction as they are not part of the original fabric of Le Moyne's sketchbook.