From the album of 15 watercolour on vellum drawings of flowers by Nicolas Robert sold for £355,000 at Sotheby’s, this posy depicts ‘Semper Augustus’ tulips, whose bulbs were the most expensive of those sold during the Tulipmania years.

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Bearing a high estimate of £200,000 but sold for £355,000 at Sotheby’s (25/20/13.9% buyer’s premium) on November 29, this small folio volume featured illustrations of tulips, daffodils, carnations, lilies, irises, crown imperials, peonies, love-in-a-mist, anemones, roses and African marigolds by one of the outstanding French botanical artists of the 17th century, Nicolas Robert (1614-85).

The plate reproduced here is also a reminder of the era of Dutch ‘Tulipmania’, a period, commencing in 1634, when prices and demand for tulip bulbs reached extraordinary levels in what is widely regarded as the first speculative economic bubble in history.

Tulips, which had first arrived in Europe from the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century, were prized for their brightly coloured petals and their associations with wealth and exoticism. Those with multi-hued petals, as seen in the watercolour reproduced here, were the most highly esteemed and valued.

Exceptional binding

The gilt decorated binding is exceptional too. On the front cover the owner’s name and status, “M.R. Desbois Conselier et Elu en l’election du Maconois”, appears above a delicately gilt floral wreath, while the rear cover, again surmounting a gilt wreath, features the attribution of the watercolours to Nicolas Robert, as executed in Lyon in 1643.

Commissioned by Louis XIII’s brother, Gaston d’Orléans, to keep a pictorial record of the plants and animals in his gardens at Blois, Robert was later chosen as the chief illustrator for the Histoire des Plantes, a project of the newly founded Académie Royale des Sciences.

Most of his drawings are today preserved in the Jardin des Plantes museum in Paris.