Thomas Knight & the Pomona Herefordiensis

The first illustrated pomology book in Britain and the world was written in 1811 by Thomas Knight orchardist and fruit breeder. Pomona Herefordiensis  was  published as part of Thomas’ attempt to improve cider orchards.

In 1797 he published a book called Treatise on Cider, describing the different stages of production, following his work surveying Herefordshire (for a government that was hoping to raise taxes to fund the Napoleonic Wars). Knight found Herefordshire orchards to be in a severe state of neglect, and in 1795 he suggested to the Royal Horticultural Society that the decline was due to each fruit variety having a limited life, coupled with a lack of good management.  The Pomona describes all the locally-grown cider fruit and perry pears the time. 

Thomas Knight

In the late 1700s. Knight had also started to breed and graft fruit trees, and at one time he had over 20,000 seedlings. Due to the increased interest in cider, in part caused by his work, cider orchards were restored and small-scale cider making revived. 

Huffcap perry pear

Thomas Andrew Knight, born in 1759 at Wormsley Grange in Herefordshire, is regarded by many as the father of modern scientific pomology. He was the youngest son of the Reverend Thomas Knight and it can be assumed  that after his education at Oxford University at Balliol College he was intended to enter the church. However, he left Oxford without taking a degree to return to Herefordshire to live as a country gentleman following rural pursuits.He inherited the means to live as a country  from his grandfather, Richard Knight, who established a prosperous iron working industry in the Coalbrookdale area. He carried out physiological experiments on fruit trees such as grafting and pruning. Pests and diseases were poorly understood in the 18th century. Thomas Andrew Knight gives the first accurate description of the life histories of common pests and diseases that afflict fruit trees in his Treatise on the Culture of the Apple and Pear. 

Showing lichen and eaten leaves

Through his friendship with Sir Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society, he became a Founder Member of  the of Horticultural Society London (now the Royal Horticultural Society) in 1804. He was elected as its second President in 1811. This was an eventful year as his Pomona Herefordiensis was published in 1811.

Thomas Andrew Knight introduced controlled pollination for plant breeding in the late eighteenth century. His interest was aroused by his observation that new types were needed for fruit orchards to replace existing varieties. The earliest recorded introduction into cultivation of a new variety was that of the ‘Grange’ apple in 1792.

The methodology for his work was recorded in his book Treatise on the Culture of the Apple and Pear published in 1797. During his lifetime Knight produced a range of new varieties of fruits some of which are still in cultivation today including ‘Downton Pippin’ apple. His plant breeding extended to other crop plants and particularly peas, strawberries, pears, potatoes, plums and nectarines.

Knight was a meticulous observer of his experimental plant breeding. In his records of the results of his crossings of different forms of the garden pea the inheritance of traits is noted and these were confirmed and developed by the later work of Gregor Mendel in the mid-nineteenth century.

Browsing through this sumptuous classic of English pomology will transport you back hundreds of years, to a time when English orchards abounded in a dazzling diversity of fruit. And when intrepid naturalists of the day found powerful partnership with some of the world’s most talented illustrators.

The volume describes 30 apple and pear varieties, each represented in breathtakingly beautiful colored plates. Artists Elizabeth Mathews and Frances Knight (Thomas Knight’s daughter) provided the original drawings, and William Hooker, considered the finest illustrator of fruit,  created the etchings that brought these drawings to brilliantly hued life. The care taken to provide life-like representation of the scabs, speckles and other blemishes observed on gathered specimens, helping to set the bar for later illustrated works, such as the Hogg and Bull’s Herefordshire Pomona

To quote Thomas “No kind of apple now cultivated appears to have existed more than two hundred years; and this term does not at all exceed the duration of a healthy tree, or of an orchard when grafted on crabstocks, and planted in a strong tenacious soil…. The Moil and it’s successful rival the Redstreak, with the Musts and Golden Pippin, are in the last stage of the decay, and the Stire and Foxwhelp are hastening rapidly after them. … All efforts, which have hitherto been made to propagate healthy trees of those varieties which have been long in cultivation, have, I believe, been entirely unsuccessful… all plants of this species, however propagated from the same stock, partake in some degree of the same life, and will attend it in the habits of their youth, their maturity and decay” .  Knight’s hypothesis, while eventually proven partly untrue, gave a significant stimulus to the breeding of new cultivars of fruit. Unknown at the time viruses were responsible for this decline, and it was not until virus free stock could be grown that decline of varieties  grafted multiple times could be avoided.

The illustrations of the Pomona Herefordiensis  were painted by 2 local artists. Knight contributed a prefatory note in which he lamented “the loss, through ill health, of the skill and talents of Miss Mathews of Belmont, to whom they were indebted for all, except three, of the very excellent drawings, from which the Plates were taken”. Only the first plate bears the relevant signature: “Eliz.th Matthews delt.”. The remaining three plates, identified by Knight as ‘Stead’s Kernel’, ‘Old Pearmain’, and ‘Friar’, were “the work of a very young and inferior artist of my own family; but those were finished under my own eye, and were most perfectly correct”  (Whether his daughter was happy at being so described is not revealed). The artist in question was Frances Knight , later Mrs  Stackhouse Acton, and an artist in a variety of fields; she lived long enough to contribute an illustration to the Herefordshire Pomona, seventy years after her drawings for her father’s book

The illustrations follow the mode established by Duhamel du Monceau in his Traité des Arbres Fruitiers, each fruit was depicted attached to a branch, accompanied by some of the leaves and portrayed so that both the top and underside of the leaf could be seen. The plates must certainly have redounded to Hooker’s credit, for the engraving was of a technically ambitious standard: the majority of the plates mix two quite disparate techniques, aquatint and mezzotint. Aquatint, so called because the results resembled the effects of watercolour paint, relied on the use of a resinous substance which was dissolved in alcohol and poured over the printing plate; once it had dried, the copper plate was then worked on with acid, which the resin prevented from eating into the copper. Mezzotint was widely used in England in order to obtain a finer tonal gradation than could be provided by line-engraving: the copper plate was roughened using an instrument called a rocker, the result being a semi-grid pattern of little dots which could be smoothed away to varying degrees depending on the degree of lightness or darkness that was required. Combining these two techniques in one illustration was not easy, and indeed in some later plates Hooker used aquatint for the entire composition; he never again attempted the complicated procedures of the Pomona Herefordiensis. The colouring of the prints varied between individual prints. It was also possible to buy ( for a discount of a few guineas the prints uncoloured.

Coloured print

Uncoloured print