In discussing 18th century botany, it’s impossible not to bring up Carl Linnaeus. As I’ve already discussed (1, 2), his classification system based on flower structure made it easier to identify species. It also changed the character of botanical illustrations, as noted in an earlier post on Linnaeus’s collaboration with the artist Georg Ehret during their time together at George Clifford’s estate in the Netherlands. Ehret had already been schooled in the necessity for accuracy and detail by the exacting German botanist Christoph Jacob Trew, but Linnaeus introduced him to a classification system based on the number of male and female parts in a flower. In many plants, these structures are difficult to see without a magnifying glass or without dissecting the flower. So while small drawings of such features sometimes appeared at the bottom of botanical illustrations before this time, they then became more common (Nickelsen, 2006). Also, there was more emphasis on the flower in the main drawing as well. At times this attention was coupled with less detail on the non-reproductive parts of the plants. For example, the branch and at least some of the leaves would be just outlines in ink drawings where only the flower was colored. There were also cases, as in Johannes Gessner’s Tabulae phytographicae (1795-1804), where flowers and fruits were presented with almost no attention to other plant parts (see figure above).
Linnaeus’s work also had the far reaching effect of making botany more popular and thus increasing demand for botanical publications in a variety of formats, most calling for illustrations, again of various sorts. There were richly illustrated florilegia that emphasized the beauty of plants growing in a particular area, or even in a particular garden. Usually these had engravings hand-colored on fine paper and produced in small print runs. More technical books tended to have uncolored illustrations; many botanists thought that color distracted the eye from the structural elements that were important in identifying species. Toward the end of the century the thirst for botanical publications led to William Curtis’s first issue of the Botanical Magazine which became a long-running journal known for its hand-colored illustrations. Some of the early ones were done by William Kilburn who then went on to a long career in producing gorgeous botanically themed wallpapers and fabrics, harkening back to the floral embroideries discussed in the last post (Christie, 2011). After Kilburn, James Sowerby took over (Henderson, 2015). This was early in his illustrious career as a natural history artist. Sowerby then teamed up with James Edward Smith, the purchaser of Linnaeus’s herbarium and founder of the Linnean Society, to begin a long-running series of books on English Botany. These were printed in a small format making them accessible to many interested in botany, yet Smith’s plant descriptions was written with accuracy so they were considered valuable references. Distinguished gardeners began sending rare plants to Sowerby to use in his paintings, thus adding prestige to their horticultural abilities and all this indicating the continuing passion for plants.
This trend wasn’t just in Britain. I’ve already mentioned Ehret’s art in Trew’s botanical publications in German, while in France, the center of botanical activity was at the King’s Garden, the Jardin des Plantes, in Paris. From 1666 to the French Revolution in 1789, there was a full-time artist working at the garden, beginning with Nicolas Robert and including Claude Aubriet who created impressive work for Joseph Pitton de Tournefort’s book on the plants of the Middle East, Aubriet having traveled with the botanist on this voyage; he also illustrated other work by Tournefort. He was succeeded by his student, Madeleine Basseporte, one of a growing number of women distinguishing themselves as botanical artists. Finally, there was Gérard van Spaendonck who survived the revolution, was later honored by Napoleon, and taught Pierre-Joseph Redouté, whom many consider the greatest flower painter of all time.
One further aspect of 18th century botanical art to consider is the trend, already mentioned in the case of Aubriet and Tournefort, to include artists along with naturalists on expeditions to little known parts of the world. When James Cook sailed on his first round-the-world voyage, Joseph Banks and Linnaeus’s student Daniel Solander collected and described plant specimens, and the artist Sydney Parkinson created over 900 drawings of them (Banks et al., 1980). The ill-fated expedition headed by Jean-François La Pérouse had a similar team as did the voyage of Antoine Bruni d’Entrecasteaux who was sent in search of his missing countrymen (Williams, 2003). There were also a number of Spanish enterprises, most to Latin America toward the end of the 18th century (Bleichmar, 2011). It is interesting that many of the expeditions resulted in no publications or extremely delayed ones. Banks’s planned flora of Australia wasn’t published until the 1980s, and much of the Spanish material was never published by members of the expeditions, though the superb illustrations produced by the artists employed by José Celestino Mutis in New Granada are now available on a well-organized website. The 18th century was definitely a century when botanical art flourished, feeding the passion for botany and also for floral decorative art in what could be considered a self-perpetuating circle of influence. In the next post, I’ll look at some of the philosophical ramifications of these trends.
Banks, J., Solander, D., & Cook, J. (1980). Banks’ Florilegium (Vols. 1–34). London, UK: British Museum.
Bleichmar, D. (2011). Visible Empire: Botanical Expeditions and Visual Culture in the Hispanic Enlightenment. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Calman, G. (1977). Ehret: Flower Painter Extraordinary. Oxford, UK: Phaidon.
Christie, A. (2011). A taste for seaweed: William Kilburn’s late eighteenth-century designs for printed cottons. Journal of Design History, 24(4), 299–314.
Henderson, P. (2015). James Sowerby: The Enlightenment’s Natural Historian. Kew, UK: Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
Nickelsen, K. (2006). Draughtsmen, Botanists and Nature: The Construction of Eighteenth-Century Botanical Illustrations. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer.
Williams, R. L. (2003). French Botany in the Enlightenment: The Ill-Fated Voyages of La Perouse and his Rescuers. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer.