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Book Report: Rock Plants

June 4, 2010

Echinocactus Leninghausii, Brazil

While looking for an entirely different book in my library, I was startled to see ‘Rock Plants’ on the shelf. Startled because I’d completely forgotten that I owned it, and startled because I’d forgotten how much I love this book. I bought ‘Rock Plants’ at the Orange Circle Antique Mall, in Orange, at least 15 years ago for $12.95. On a shelf with lots of old books, mostly art-related, I was intrigued by its plain title. A tall folio-style book, and not very thick, I didn’t know what I might find between its covers. Happily, I discovered it contained page after page of gorgeous full-color lithographs of succulents and cacti — 40 of them in all!

Plain cover; simple titles

Turning back to the front of the book, I learned it was published in 1948 by Hyperion Press in New York (after having been published originally in London and Paris in 1939). The illustrator, a noted flower painter named Arlette Davids, created the paintings for the book during the Bagatelle Flower Show in pre-war Paris. Aside from these great illustrations it also boasted a preface by a certain Henry de Montherlant, a leading French novelist, essayist and playwright of that time. In this preface, which contains observations on succulent love that are both impenetrable and bizarre (“The Arab pet who speaks of the youth so “cruel” in his adolescence and so easy-going when hideous bristles have destroyed all his attraction, omits to compare him with the nopal encircled with barbs.”), Montherlant notes at the end: “These plants remind me of people who put on armour to protect their vulnerable hearts full of love and pity; who, although covered with thorns to the many, are tenderness itself to the few.” Passing my cape of over-thinking to Monsieur Montherlant, let’s look at the rest of the book …

Echinocactus Minusculus, Northwestern Argentina

Each plate comes with its own cover sheet that lists the particular plant’s various classifications, its Latin name and place of origin. I love the lettering on these cover pages, with their uneven spacing and antique look.

Echinocactus Tabularis, Uruguay and Brazil

Of course, Madame Davids’ rendering of each plant is superb. Although stylized and loosely painted, each plant’s character is readily discernible. I’m ecstatic that the colors have really held up nicely in spite of the book being now over 60 years-old!

Aloe Ciliaris, South Africa

Each plant representation is positioned on the page in such a way that some seem to float in a void, while others burst wantonly and try to extend beyond their borders.

Kalanchoe Flammea, Somaliland, Africa

Madame Davids’ color choices are spot-on, managing to capture the range of hues present in succulents and cacti in a way that’s completely natural. Her brushstrokes are apparent and they, too, help represent the way these plant’s flowers and foliage grow and are alive. Even though these paintings were done so long ago, they have a definite contemporary feel, as if they could have been done yesterday.

Mesembrianthemum Edule, South Africa

Finding this book was a real ephiphany; viewing these pages again I remembered just how impressed I was by both plant and painting when I first saw them. I can’t help but think that buying it was the catalyst for wanting to use succulents in my own artwork later (post surgery), and for wanting to grow and be surrounded by them. Amazing! I wish I could tell you where to buy this book for yourself but it’s decades out of print, of course. Copies can be found online with a little searching and I’ve also found dealers selling the pages separately as frame-able prints (though it pains me to think of someone cutting apart the book). It’s worth tracking down if you love botanical art, succulents and cacti like I do; it’s a true inspiration.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. June 4, 2010 7:29 pm

    This is a little scary. I own this book too! The 1939 version printed in France. I was offered it by a neighbor cleaning out her library and jumped at it. Never read the intro by Montherlant, but looking at it now I’m wondering if he’s not a victim of a poor translator. He’s spot on when he says “this passion runs away with fortunes.” (Think of Huntington building railroads to bring his cactus collection home. ) Your comments on the artwork do more than justice to the lithographs.

    • reubix1 permalink*
      June 4, 2010 7:35 pm

      Hi, Denise! I knew someone would come forward as an owner of this book, and I should’ve known it’d be you… I hope your copy’s in better shape than mine, it really needs TLC now.

  2. Megan permalink
    June 4, 2010 11:51 pm

    You always have the coolest stuff! I found some “acceptable” grade copies on Amazon for $7.99. I think I need it.

    • reubix1 permalink*
      June 5, 2010 12:00 am

      You do need it; you guys will love it, too. And thanks, also, for helping me make a French (blog) connection!

  3. Megan permalink
    June 7, 2010 3:44 am

    The french folks found you too! It took us a little bit to figure out that Marie Claire France posted about us 🙂

    • reubix1 permalink*
      June 7, 2010 3:50 am

      I know, exciting, isn’t it… this is the promise of the internet fulfilled, right? ; ) To me it’s amazing that people in France are looking into my backyard!


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