Canadian Wild Flowers, written by Catherine Parr Traill and illustrated by Agnes FitzGibbon, was a publication of William Briggs in 1895. Canadian Wild Flowers can be considered Canada’s first 4-colour, illustrated coffeetable book.
The four editions of Canadian Wild Flowers date back to 1868, 1869, 1870 and 1895. A note attached to the front of the fourth, 1895 edition from the desk of C.H. Dickinson, General Manager of The Ryerson Press, reads as follows: “Original Book — Bound in the Methodist Book and Publishing House in the year 1895 in light blue C M Pattern Extra Cloth. Cover – bevelled edges, stamped in gold leaf and blinded as this book – tripple* rules on outside edges with special circular stamp in centre in gold on page one of cover, the same stamping on the back cover – gilt edges, blue and gold lines with flowers, end papers.”
Catherine Parr Traill was born in England in 1802. She, and her sister Susanna Moodie, were two of four Strickland sisters who pursued literary interests. Catherine Parr Strickland had married Thomas Traill in 1832 and emigrated to Canada that same year to join her sister. She settled near the Otonabee River, near what is now Lakefield, Ontario.
In her preface to the 1868 edition, Ms. Traill presents a few words of introduction to her many “subscribers” to the work. She claims that any “shortcomings that may be noticed by our friends must be excused on the score of the work being wholly Canadian in its execution…Our Canadian publishers can hardly be expected to compete with the booksellers and printers of the Old Country, or of the United States, labouring as they must necessarily do in a new country under many mechanical disadvantages.”
In her introduction to the fourth edition, Ms. Agnes Chamberlin, formerly Mrs. Agnes FitzGibbon, daughter of Susanna Moodie and niece of Catherine Parr Traill, provides a fascinating history of the publication of the book.
She records that: “In 1863, my aunt, Mrs. Traill, whose work on the Canadian flora (Studies of Plant Life in Canada (1885)) is well known, brought the manuscript of that work to Toronto, in the hope of finding a publisher willing to undertake it. She was unsuccessful, principally because of there being no illustrations. A kind friend, the Rev. Mr. Clementi, who had sketched some of our native flowers, offered her the use of his drawings if she could find someone to copy them.
“I had never painted a flower, but the attempt to copy these drawings led to the discovery that I could sketch more accurately from Nature; and although Mrs. Traill’s book was not then published, I continued to make drawings of all the wild flowers I gathered, with the assistance of friends, on the Humber plains and in the woods about my house on the Dundas Road.”
Widowed with six children in 1865, Agnes FitzGibbon turned first to teaching to provide for her children. Later, she decided to try her hand at illustrating and publishing her aunt’s book. FitzGibbon managed to secure five hundred subscribers in an attempt to defray the initial costs of publication. Having guaranteed her patrons that the book would be entirely published in Canada, she set about finding the means of producing the book entirely by Canadian suppliers. A limited edition of 500 copies was printed by Messrs. Chewett & Co. Once printed, Ms. FitzGibbon along with “the help of one or two young friends, coloured the whole edition by hand.”
The book was first published by John Lovell of Montreal in 1868 and a second edition in 1869. A third edition came out a year later. In 1870, Agnes FitzGibbon married Colonel Chamberlin and some years later began to revive the publication of a fourth edition through her Toronto publisher, William Briggs. Of the fourth edition, she says: “The work has many faults, of which no one is more conscious than myself, but both in drawing and colouring, the flowers are accurate representations of those gathered by myself and friends, and the book should be interesting as the first attempt in Canada to produce a work of this kind, and by an amateur who had never seen a lithographic stone till she commenced the work.”
Many of Agnes Chamberlin’s original drawings are contained in The Agnes Chamberlin Digital Collection in the Fisher Library at the University of Toronto.