Isaac Sprague, Botanical Illustrator

The Old Ordinary, our 1688 house museum, opens on June 13, 2017 and, for a second season, you can come see our Old Ordinary Summer Exhibit, “Isaac Sprague and American Botany.” While the exhibit devotes significant attention to Isaac Sprague’s Hingham roots and continuing connections with our town, it also addresses his prolific career as a botanical illustrator which is the source of his lasting fame.

coffee plantIn the 1840s Sprague left Hingham and moved to Cambridge, where he worked with influential botanists, including John Torrey (1796-1873) and Torrey’s pupil, Harvard professor Asa Gray (1810-1888), who is often referred to as a “father of American botany.”  In the mid-19th century, American botany was undergoing a period of intense growth and development into an academic discipline seeking a unified understanding of North American plant life that would match the highest standards of then-current European scholarship and complexity.  An important part of this process was the publication of complete and authoritative works describing the plant life of this continent—with clear, detailed, and accurate illustrations.  Sprague’s talents were ideal for the task.

2011.0.271Sprague first produced the illustrations for Asa Gray’s 1845 Lowell lectures at Harvard and then assisted with several comprehensive botanical volumes over the course of the 1840s and 1850s. His illustrations were scientific tools first and aesthetic objects second:  Sprague considered himself to be a naturalist or delineator rather than describing himself as an artist. In the preface to his 1848 work Genera of the Plants of the United States, Professor Gray described “the scientific insight and careful investigations of Mr. Sprague, as well as . . . his skill and accuracy in delineation.”  In his private correspondence, he reported that Sprague was studying botany and the natural sciences, underscoring the technical knowledge the work required.

Sprague contributed plates and engravings to over 40 works of botanical, horticultural and naturalist interest over this part of his career. The writers with whom he worked included not only Torrey and Asa Gray but also William Oakes (1799-1848), George Emerson (1797-1881), George Goodale (1839-1923), and others.  (The illustrations in this blog post are plates from George Emerson’s 1838 Trees and Shrubs of New England.)

Isaac Sprague and American Botany

isaac sprague poster '16-100dpiA new exhibit opened today at our 1688 Old Ordinary house museum, 21 Lincoln Street, Hingham. Isaac Sprague and American Botany: Art, Science, and Agriculture in the 19th Century examines the life and work of America’s best-known botanical illustrator–and son of Hingham–and places his art in the context of several currents of 19th century social history.  Plus, we have mounted some absolutely lovely botanical prints and and a series of beautifully detailed pencil drawings of the many types of orchard fruits that were once grown in this area. The exhibit can be seen Tuesdays through Saturdays, between 1 pm and 5 pm, for the rest of the summer.  We hope you come and take a look and learn a little more about this Hingham artist.

Main Street, Top of Pear Tree HillIsaac Sprague was born in Hingham in 1811. His family lived in Hingham Centre, in a house that still stands today. The Spragues of Hingham were primarily coopers, part of the woodenware industry that gave early Hingham the nickname “Bucket Town.”  Sprague was mostly self-taught as an artist, recalling that he “always had a fondness for making pictures” as a child. He was “constantly discouraged from doing so by [his] father, who said artists were invariably poor,” but his family did have some creative roots–his Uncle Hosea was a printer and engraver, and another uncle, Blossom, ran a carriage-painting business (visible in the center of this early photo of Hingham Centre) where Sprague was apprenticed as a young man.

No. 11Sprague developed an early love of nature and much of his juvenile work is drawn from the woods and fields around Hingham.  In particular, young Isaac drew and painted numerous pictures of birds.  When Sprague was about thirty, he met the wildlife artist J. J. Audubon, who examined a number of Sprague’s bird drawings and, impressed with his talent, hired him as an assistant. In this capacity, Sprague accompanied Audubon out west to the Missouri Territory and Fort Union on a trip to produce sketches for Audubon’s Quadrupeds of North America. This connection with Audubon launched Sprague’s career as a botanical artist.

2011.0.271After his trip west Sprague returned briefly to the South Shore, working as a clerk in a Nantasket Beach hotel until, the following year, he started to work as an illustrator for prominent American botanist Asa Gray, first producing illustrations for his 1845 Lowell lectures at Harvard.  Before long he moved to Cambridge, continuing to work for Gray and other Harvard professors, illustrating several comprehensive botanical volumes in the 1840s and 1850s.  (The illustration to the left, of Aesculus Parviflora, is from an 1848 work, Trees and Shrubs of New England.)

Lydia Sprague: Young Artist and Scholar (Part 1)

IMG_3205Our archives contain a partial school record of an artistic young Hingham scholar.  Her name was Lydia Sprague, and she attended Derby Academy from 1844, when she was 12, through 1846. Her sketchbook, hand-drawn maps, copybook, and other school work provide a glimpse into schoolwork at Derby Academy in the mid-19th century and reveal a schoolgirl’s love of drawing and a desire to excel by attention to detail.

Lydia’s small sketches of possibly local scenes, landscapes, and figures engaged in play and daily life suggest a family talent shared with the more famous Hingham artist Isaac Sprague. Isaac Sprague, an older second cousin, was born in 1811. Like Lydia, he was the son of a box-cooper and grew up in Hingham Center. It is likely that Lydia knew and looked up to her cousin Isaac.

Isaac Sprague was a self-taught artist and naturalist who met early success when he accompanied John Jay Audubon on the 1843 expedition up the Missouri River that led to Audobon’s famous portfolio, “Quadrupeds of North America.” An obituary of Isaac Sprague quoted him as saying, on the subject of his training, “I always had a fondness of making pictures and made small drawings at school.”

IMG_3216Young Lydia Sprague also made “small drawings at school,” and we have in our collection three of her pencil sketchbooks, highly detailed maps of American states and territories, and a copy book of exquisite penmanship. This fascinating legacy conveys her individual achievement as a diligent student and young artist.

The repetitive penmanship exercises of moral phrases and the exhaustive information included on her maps provide a glimpse of Derby Academy’s high expectations both of virtuous behavior and proficiency in these areas of study.


Before the advent of universal public primary and secondary education, most children who received a good education had affluent parents who could pay for it. Lydia was the daughter of a box-cooper and born in 1832, when most Hingham girls of her class were taught only enough reading, writing, and arithmetic and needlework to prepare them for their lives as the wives or tradesmen, mariners, and artisans. IMG_3198She had the good fortune to have been raised by parents who valued education and who enrolled her for a few years at Derby Academy. This progressive school, the first in New England to offer a rigorous education to girls, was founded shortly after the Revolution and perhaps reflected a new republication concern that women be prepared to raise knowledgeable and patriotic citizens.

–To be continued