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Darwin Correspondence Project

Perfect copper-plate hand: From Adolf Reuter, 30 May 1869


Sketch of Robinia rubra
Sketch of Robinia rubra
Enclosure with letter from Adolf Reuter, 23 September 1869

My favourite correspondent was chosen not because he is a brilliant conversationalist or a significant scientific thinker – but after a decade of reading a series of challenging hand writings, my favourite is the one who wrote in a perfect copper-plate hand.

Adolf Reuter was a Prussian gardener. As a young man he travelled, working in Liege, Ghent, Paris, and Kew. He started at the royal botanic gardens at Sanssouci as a planteur, rising through the ranks to head gardener and ultimately head court gardener. Sanssouci was a summer palace built by Prussian King Frederick the Great outside Potsdam, considered the German rival of Versailles; it was a park encompassing 300 hectares and hundreds of thousands of plants, dotted with fountains, sculpture, and architecture. Reuter wrote to CD in a spirit of humility, starting his first letter ‘Sir, you will be very astonished to receive a letter from a person, who has not the honour to be acquainted with you in any way’. He cited his expertise and expressed his admiration for CD’s Variation. Following this initial foray he and CD exchanged a brief correspondence dotted with treasures. With one letter came a delicate ink sketch of a vine grafted to a tree. On another occasion, he sent a series of pressed leaves, each still with a label painstakingly painted onto it.

The correspondence with Reuter is brief in the grand scheme of CD’s correspondence, only 5 letters each way, but it’s a beautiful example of an exchange showing respect between two individuals who both care passionately about plants and their behaviours. And the exquisite handwriting doesn’t hurt either.

Elizabeth Smith