Although it is said one should not 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 its original 16th-century binding that prompted the purchase, leaving the artworks inside almost forgotten for about 65 years. Yet, it was precisely thanks to this that these watercolours 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.
Le Moyne's watercolours move away from the religious symbolism commonly associated with plants during the medieval period towards a more naturalistic approach.
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 extracted from the volume 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. 15bis recto and the pear on f. v 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.