The Culture of Camellias:

An exhibition chiefly from the 
Phelps Memorial Collection of Garden Books

text by Patrick Scott, 
Associate University Librarian for Special Collections 
hypertext by Mila Tasseva

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poster from the 1999 exhibit

Among the University of South Carolina's hidden treasures is one of the major collections in the United States of rare illustrated books about the camellia, its history, cultivation, and early varieties. The collection was formed by Mrs. Sheffield Phelps (Claudia Lea) of Aiken. Mrs. Phelps was the first president of the Garden Club of South Carolina (1930-33), and her daughter Miss Claudia Lea Phelps succeeded her as the Club's third president (1936-38). The Phelps Memorial Collection of Garden Books was donated to the University by Miss Phelps in 1959 on her mother's death, with additional acquisitions in the 1980s after the dispersal of the Phelps home at Rose Hill, in the centre of Aiken. The Rose Hill gardens were well known for their trees and shrubs, including many camellias. There are camellia varieties named for both Mrs. Phelps and Miss Claudia Lea Phelps.

This exhibition tells the story of how camellias were brought from the Far East in the early 1700s to Europe, and then to America, how they were identified and named, and how the major varieties were developed by 19th-century specialist growers. The exhibit includes some of the very earliest published depictions of the camellia, from as far back as 1702, as well as gorgeous handcolored copperplate engravings from the heyday of camellia books in the early and mid 19th century.


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