William Curtisattended the Friends school in Burford before being apprenticed to apothecary George Vaux, with a view to becoming a doctor. In due course he inherited the practice but decided that his real interest was in botany. He was also interested in entomology, especially in the interactions between insects and plants. He lived in Gracechurch Street and became friendly with one of his neighbours John Coakley Lettsom, and also with John Fothergill. Both of them had a key interest in plants, and their medicinal properties, so they had much in common with William. They were also able to help him financially.
In 1770 he began planning a small botanic garden in Bermondsey. He was concerned that indigenous plants were being neglected in favour of the many exotic imports that his fellow botanists were introducing. He wanted people to know much more about native plants, and appreciate them, so he set out to create a ‘teaching garden’. His idea came to fruition in 1772 when the Botanic Garden was opened. The plants were carefully labelled and classified using the new system devised by Linnaeus.
From 1772 to 1777 he worked as a demonstrator at the Chelsea Physic Garden, where the Society of Apothecaries trained their apprentices to identify plants. His increased knowledge of the medicinal properties of plants greatly influenced his ideas about the potential of future botanic gardens.
In 1779 he put this into practice, setting up the London Botanic Garden at Lambeth Marsh, near where Waterloo Station now stands. For one guinea people could walk in the garden and use the library. If they were prepared to pay a higher fee they could obtain cuttings and seeds of the plants. The plants were laid out with coloured sticks: blue to indicate a food crop, black for poisons, red for dyes, green for agriculture and yellow for physics (medicinal). In 1789 he decided to move the gardens to a new site at Brompton. His reasons in his own words were
'the smoke of London […] constantly enveloped my plants..'
He wrote several articles about his work, including an entomological one about aphids and plant blight, but his crowning achievements were two large botanical publications. His friend John Coakley Lettsom provided knowledgeable and encouraging support in this work, and gave much financial help.
Over a period of 20 years (1777-98) he published Flora Londinenses (London plants) in six volumes, the first such publication to be devoted to urban nature. Each volume contained plates with accompanying text describing the plants that could be found within a ten-mile radius of London. It was a great achievement, but it was not a financial success as it took a long time and was expensive to produce and buy. Copies sold at 5 guineas each.
His other publishing venture was much more successful. Due to the variety of exotic plants coming into the country there was a desire for a publication that gave information about them including their cultivation. Curtis started to publish The Botanical Magazine in 1787. Each flower was numbered so that the series could be bound and collected, and text was kept to a minimum, comprising a Linnaean name, genus, character and some horticultural information. The publication was a manageable octavo size, featuring 3 plants per issue, published regularly once a month, and limited to beautiful exotic specimens. The illustrations were by eminent botanical artists, including Sydenham Edwards who was specially trained for the task, and were hand coloured, a practice that continued until 1948. The first plant featured was the Persian Iris. He charged one shilling per month and had 2000 subscribers. Curtis had no more financial troubles for the rest of his life. The Magazine still exists today and is said to be the oldest continuously published magazine with coloured illustrations in the world. After some changes of name it is now known at The Curtis’s Botanical Magazine.
Samuel Curtis (1779 -1860) was the cousin and son-in-law of William Curtis. He took over the publishing of The Botanical Magazine after William died. His son Henry Curtis was a skilled rose grower and produced a two volume work ‘The Beauties of the Rose’.