In continuing with the theme of art related to plant specimen collections, I’d like to discuss an ambitious endeavor. The herbarium at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew was the site for this long-term student art project. Created by Rachel Pedder-Smith as part of her doctoral project at the Royal College of Art in London, a massive botanical illustration depicts 703 specimens from 505 families. (Pedder-Smith, 2011). The watercolors are arranged on seven large sheets of paper, and when placed end-to-end, the painting measures 18 feet long. This work, called Herbarium Specimen Painting, required 766 days of painting, with an average of seven hours work a day. Pedder-Smith chose to use herbarium specimens rather than living material because she wanted to interweave history into the work. Many of the specimens were collected by important names in botany including Joseph Banks, Charles Darwin, and Joseph Dalton Hooker. There is also history included in the arrangement of specimens, which uses the latest taxonomic classification based on DNA evidence, and thus on evolutionary history.
While the specimens aren’t labeled, but simply spread out as an amazing botanical carpet, there is a detailed key to each of the seven sheets. The specimens are numbered in the key so they can be easily found within the dizzying variety of the display. In the dissertation Pedder-Smith (2011) wrote to accompany the painting, she not only describes her process, but uses material culture theory to explore other examples of artists employing herbarium specimens in their work. She quotes James Deetz’s (1977) definition of material culture as “that sector of our physical environment that we modify through culturally determined behavior” (p. 35). It might seem odd to discuss herbaria in terms of culture, but at the very least, that culture has changed over time. Just look at the amount of information on labels for newly collected specimens compared to those from the 19th century. She also quotes the geologist Fortey (2008) who described herbarium specimens as a tactile link to intellectual forebears. It is this history that made the specimens so attractive to Pedder-Smith as a subject for her painting. But there was also a more practical reason for the choice: even a botanic garden as distinguished as Kew would not have easily accessible living material from 505 different plant families, particularly reproductive material, which often has the most distinctive species characteristics.
After a general discussion of material culture, Pedder-Smith uses this analysis to examine the work of several other artists who have employed herbarium specimens in their work. One striking example is the Australian artist Greg Pryor’s Flora Nullius. While on an art residency in Vienna, he studied the Australian botanical specimens at the herbarium of the Natural History Museum there. He photographed and traced specimens of about 200 Western Australian plants, many of which were collected in the 19th century. At the herbarium, he also collected old mounting sheets that had been discarded when specimens were remounted. When he returned to Australia, he took pieces of corrugated board used in pressing specimens and made labels from the old mounting paper for each of the specimens he had traced. He also attached old envelopes or capsules used to hold pieces of specimen. But there was no trace of the specimen itself, only tape to show where it would be attached. This work symbolizes not only the colonial thrust of plant collection—with specimens leaving the country of origin—but also the disappearance of plant populations as humans take over and develop sites where these species had grown in the past. The following year, Pryor undertook an even larger project called Black Solander, referencing Daniel Solander the Swedish botanist who collected on one of Captain Cook’s voyages. He worked in the Western Australian Herbarium in Perth, Australia and made small drawings of every one of the approximately 10,500 plant species known in Western Australia. These were done in black ink on black sugar paper. Again, there is the suggestion of disappearance, of something preserved and at the same time fading away. Here is yet another, though very different take on memory, fragility, and timelessness.
Peddar-Smith also presents the work of two photographers who have published books with images of herbarium specimens. One is a volume called simply Herbarium with photographs of specimens at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney by Robyn Stacey and text by Ashley Hay (2004). This book’s aim is to raise the profile of this herbarium by presenting full-page images of specimens that have been digitally cleaned so that the wear and tear on the sheets isn’t evident. The accompanying text provides a history of the collection including stories about the hair-raising adventures of collectors. An earlier photographic work that focused even more on the aesthetics of specimens was created by Nick Knight with descriptions of the plants by Sandy Knapp (1997). Here the sheets were not only cleaned, but the labels removed, so the plants are presented as aesthetic objects, these contrast with the botanical information given in the descriptions. As Knapp notes in the introduction, the idea for this project arose from photographic work in the herbarium that Knight was doing at the Natural History Museum, London, where Knapp is a taxonomist. Knight opened Knapp’s eyes to the beauty hidden in this collection, and it was the aim of the book to present that beauty to a wider audience.