Herbert Dobbie’s cyanotypes of New Zealand ferns

Alexandra Caccamo (Librarian, National Botanic Gardens) discusses a remarkable book of cyanotypes from the special collections of the National Botanic Gardens.

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New Zealand Ferns. 148 Varieties  by Herbert Dobbie

One of the first tasks I undertook when I started working in the National Botanic Gardens in 2007 was to review the open access collection.  During this audit, I found a number of items that were later moved to the special collections.  One of these items was a thin volume by Herbert Dobbie, entitled New Zealand Ferns. 148 Varieties (1880).  It caught my eye, as it was an unusual book, consisting entirely of cyanotypes.

I had never come across a cyanotype book before so, I was quite excited to find Dobbie’s book on the shelves. Immediately I removed it for safekeeping to the more secure storage of the special collections and started to do some research, finding two articles on Dobbie written by John D. McCraw.

Herbert Dobbie (1852-1940)

Herbert Dobbie was born in 1852 in Middlesex.  He was from a military family, his father and brothers all joined the army.  However, he became apprentice engineer in Edinburgh at the age of sixteen.  In 1875, he left Britain for New Zealand, where he continued his career as an Engineer, eventually working for the Government Railways.  During his free time, he travelled extensively by foot and on his penny-farthing bicycle collecting ferns.  It was at this time he produced his first cyanotype book on the ferns of New Zealand. Dobbie would have been familiar with the cyanotype process, as it was used for blueprint plans by architects and engineers.



A cyanotype is a photographic printing process that uses two simple compounds of iron to make a light sensitive material.  The negative image produced is prussian blue or cyan in colour and is known as a cyanotype.  The best-known producer of cyanotype books is Anna Atkins (1799-1871), whose work Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions (1843-1853) is both scientifically important and artistically beautiful.

Producing a book of this nature is not a quick or simple process.  All the material to be printed has to be collected, and a cyanotype of each specimen has be made for however many copies of the book are to be produced.  It is a long and painstaking process.

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New Zealand Ferns. 148 Varieties (1880)

In one of the articles by McCraw, he outlines how he attempted to find out how many of Doobie’s cyanotype books are still in existence.  There were five different editions of the book printed and McCraw located 14 copies of the book in total.  At the time, he could only find one overseas library that had the book in their collection, and that was the library at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.  Glasnevin’s copy was not listed.  McCraw was not able to discover how many copies were originally produced, but it cannot have been very many due to the lengthy printing process.


Although not every plate in the book is expertly executed, it is an interesting book, and is of value both for its rarity and historical interest. It is certainly a unique item in the National Botanic Gardens Library.

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Cave, Roderick. Impressions of Nature : a history of nature printing. London : The British Library, 2010.

DiNoto, Andrea & Winter, David. The Pressed Plant. New York : Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1999.

McCraw, J. D. “H. B. Dobbie – fern enthusiast”. New Zealand Journal of Botany. 26.2. (1988): 171—78.

_____ “The ‘blue books’ of H. B. Dobbie and Eric Craig”. New Zealand Journal of Botany. 27.3. (1989): 347-51.

_____ “Dobbie, Herbert Boucher”. Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, 1996. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Web. 10 August 2018. https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3d9/dobbie-herbert-boucher



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