Sadie Price in the Herbarium

4a Asplenium

Sadiee Price’s drawing of Asplenium spinulosum in the library archives, Missouri Botanical Garden.

Since I am interested in the relationship of science and art, I am intrigued by the connections between drawings and herbarium specimens, as in the case Blanche Ames’s watercolor sketches attached to Oakes Ames’s sheets of orchid specimens (see earlier post).  There are also many instances where loose drawings and botanical prints were stored in folders along with specimens in herbarium cabinets.  In other words, they were seen as works of science more than of art.  This practice is less common today, when the same items are considered more as artworks that need to be protected from the chemicals in plant material that could discolor or damage them.  At the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, many illustrations are still housed in the herbarium but in separate boxes from the specimens.  At the Royal Botanical Garden, Edinburgh former curator Henry Nolte acidulously went through the herbarium folders removing illustrations and then attempted to reorganize them according to artist or to the collector who had created a particular collection.

Such separation is now common practice.  At the Field Museum, Christine Niezgoda showed me a file of illustrations she has found amid herbarium folders.  She said she was more likely to find them in folders from plant groups that are not under intensive studies by museum botanists—these just aren’t accessed often.  She discovered a beautiful collection of prints filed with Japanese specimens.  At the Missouri Botanical Garden (MOBOT), Doug Holland, director of the library, told me a similar story.  While their tropical collections are heavily used, this is less true of American plants.  However in preparing a flora of Missouri, George Yatskievych, then at MOBOT now at the University of Texas, came upon a number of drawings by a Kentucky amateur botanist and botanical illustrator, Sadie Price (1849-1903).  Most were the size of a herbarium sheet, and some even had herbarium labels.  Since the sheets had acquisition numbers, Yatskievych was able to track down hundreds of them, that are now kept in the MOBOT archives along with Price’s beautiful drawings of insects and other animals.

When I visited the Sachs Museum at MOBOT (see last post), I then went over to the library and looked at some of the Price botanical illustrations.  She had done a book on ferns as a guide for collecting, and for most of the species presented there, matching drawings can be found among her artwork.  Usually there are two per species, one a preparatory sketch and then a finished drawing.  The sketch is often almost as detailed as the drawing, though the latter has a herbarium label giving the Latin name and order of the fern, the date and place of collection and the collector’s name (see image above).  In many cases, the labels are printed with room for the information to be written in.  At the top there is a line for “Herbarium of . . . ” and there Price wrote in the county where the plant was found.  This is an interesting way to present a drawing.  It is useful because it indicates that a living plant was used as the model and provides information relating to it.  If the plant were a new species, this would be particularly important.  And in fact, Sadie did discover more than one new species of flowering plant, for example, Apios priceana, Price’s groundnut.

None of the fern drawings are in watercolor, but many flowering plants are.  Usually it is not the entire drawing, but portions—including the flower and/or fruit to striking effect (see figure below).  The rest of the drawing is done in pencil; Price rarely used ink except for her initials.  When I met Doug Holland at a meeting last year, he told me about the Price collection, and I was intrigued by her use of the herbarium sheet format.  I became more interested after I went through many of her drawings.  Even when she didn’t paste on labels, she often replicated the label format either on a handwritten scrap pasted to the sheet, or else she drew a rectangular box in pencil and filled the information in there.

4b Aesculus

Sadie Price’s drawing of Aesculus octandra in the library archives, Missouri Botanical Garden

Price was determined to have her drawings look like specimen sheets, yet this wasn’t because they replaced specimens for her.  She also collected plants, and many of her specimens are now at MOBOT, in some cases of the same plants she drew.  All her natural history materials along with a scrapbook were given to the garden by her sister after her death.  The scrapbook is filled with interesting letters, newspaper cuttings, notes, etc., including an article from the Bowling Green Advocate announcing Price’s gold medal for her herbarium display, the best among 100 entries at the Chicago World’s Fair.  This suggests that her specimens were as elegant as her drawings, and also that creating herbaria was still a common pursuit among natural history buffs at the end of the 19th century.

The Advocate article proudly noted that the award was an indication that “Miss Price is in the first rank of scientists in the nation.”  I am not sure that university-trained botanists would have agreed, but Price would have been pleased with the compliment.  I think that her use of specimen labels on her illustrations was an attempt to both increase their scientific value and also to suggest that the artist knew enough botany to understand why identification of place and time as well as species was important.

Note:  I would like to thank Doug Holland for sharing information about Sadie Price with me and showing me so much of her art.

One thought on “Sadie Price in the Herbarium

  1. Pingback: Victorian Botany: Ferns | Herbarium World

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