"The Librarian's Nightmare": James Bateman's Orchidaceae of Mexico and Guatemala

Our librarian Will Beharrell examines one of our most prized—and most challenging—books

Published on 10th January 2022

After a few weeks of Christmas excess, many of us emerge into the New Year a little more burdened than usual. So spare a thought for the poor librarian who must also contend with this month’s Linnean Society treasure: a book so implausibly bulky it is described as “the librarian’s nightmare” within its very own pages.

"The Librarian's Nightmare": cartoon vignette by George Cruikshank from the preface. A caption in Greek translates as "a great book is a great evil".
Bateman's Orchidaceae of Mexico and Guatemala. Bound volume on a reading room table.

Left: "The Librarian's Nightmare" - cartoon vignette by George Cruikshank from the preface to Bateman’s Orchidaceae. A caption in Greek translates as "a great book is a great evil". Right: the bound volume in repose in our library.

James Bateman’s Orchidaceae of Mexico and Guatemala (1837-1843) may be the most remarkable and ostentatious of the mid-nineteenth century flower books. Nearly 75cm tall (and over 17kg in weight), it represents a high point in the fashion for grand botanical works, pioneered by John Sibthorpe and Ferdinand Bauer’s Flora Graeca some thirty years earlier.

PP.B.15: A studio portrait of James Bateman (circa 1870s)

PP.B.15: A studio portrait photograph of James Bateman (circa 1870s)

Bateman was a wealthy landowner and horticulturalist who nurtured a lifelong passion for rare orchids, and transformed his Staffordshire home at Biddulph Grange into one of the most beautiful gardens in Britain (now managed by the National Trust). Bateman’s Orchidaceae was issued in parts between 1837 and 1843, with stunning full-size lithographs by Maxim Gauci, based on drawings mostly by Augusta Withers (c.1793-1864) and Sarah Anne Drake (1803-1857), among a few others. Only 125 sets were issued, and the Linnean Society is privileged to hold a copy in its library (in addition to a successor publication, the exceedingly scarce Monograph of Odontoglossum, with illustrations by the Scottish botanical illustrator, Walter Hood Fitch, published in 1874). The volumes may have been presented by Bateman himself—who was elected a Fellow of the Society in 1833—although our “Presents” Books do not appear to record the gift, and so their route to our shelves is, at present, obscure.

Epidendrum alatum

Epidendrum alatum.

Further work may turn up additional information about the history of this particular copy. In the meantime, it remains a silent threat to the orthopaedic health of our librarian, and one of our most prized—if most challenging—objects.

Will Beharrell, Librarian


Catalogue records

Bateman, Jas. , 1811-1897. The Orchidaceae of Mexico and Guatemala. London: [published by the author], 1837-1843.

Bateman, Jas. , 1811-1897. A Monograph of Odontoglossum. London: Reeve., [1864-] 1874.

Text and Image Credits

Text © The Linnean Society of London, 2022

Image PP-B-15 © The Linnean Society of London, 2022

Other images of a work in the Public Domain from the Biodiversity Heritage Library. Contributed by the Missouri Botanical Garden, Peter H. Raven Library. | www.biodiversitylibrary.org