Art and the Herbarium: Botanical Illustrations

1 Rauh witch hazel

Watercolor of witch hazel seed pods by Dr. Dick Rauh, courtesy of the artist

Over three years ago, I began this blog with a series of posts on the relationship between art and herbaria (1,2,3,4).  This is such a rich subject that I want to return to it here and explore areas that I hadn’t discussed previously.  One topic is probably the most obvious and that’s botanical illustration.  Defined narrowly, this is art in the service of botany, documenting plants as accurately as possible either in pen-and-ink drawings or in watercolor.  These artistic traditions extend back at least to the mid-16th century, though there are accurate renditions of plants much older than that, for example in the sixth-century Juliana Anicia Codex, named for the Empress of the Holy Roman Empire, and the Carrara Herbal produced in Italy at the end of the 14th century.  The Linnaean era brought an informal codification of what a botanical illustration should include:  details of flower structure sometimes with dissections and enlargements as auxiliary to the main image, fruit might also be pictured (Nickelsen, 2006).  What didn’t change was the tradition of presenting a single species against a blank background, though in print, several individual species might be pictured on the same page to save space.

While some thought that photography would replace illustration in botanical publications, that substitution is hardly complete.  There is still a place for illustration in part because, as the zoological artist Jonathan Kingdon has noted:  “Contemporary research on the human brain shows that it does NOT process images as a neutral camera does.  The brain finds edges and builds constructions that are at least partially based on previous experience—possibly including past contacts with artifacts such as ‘drawings’ as well as previous knowledge of natural objects” (Kingdon, 2011, p. 137).  From this he concludes that:  “If the brain is unlike a camera in actively seeking outlines, there is a strong implication that ‘outline drawings’ can represent, in themselves, artifacts that may correspond more closely with what the brain seeks than the charts of light-fall that photographs represent” (p. 139).

Today, most illustrations are in pen and ink because watercolors are much more expensive to produce and publish.  However, in the late 20th and into the 21st century there has been a renaissance in botanical painting fueled by several factors.  Among these was the development of exhibitions and prizes.  The International Exhibition of Botanical Art & Illustration has been sponsored by at the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation in Pittsburgh since 1964.  This is a juried show with artists from many nations represented and is now usually held every two years.  The Royal Horticultural Society in London mounts a yearly Botanical Art Show and awards prizes in several categories.  I am proud to say that I’ve taken a number of classes with an artist who has been in the Hunt Show and also won RHS prizes.  Dick Rauh has taught for many years in the botanical illustration certificate program at New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) (see image above).  Such programs have done a lot to spur interest in botanical art and have produced many exceptional artists.  The best way to get a sense of the field is to look at the website of the American Society of Botanical Artists (ASBA), and at their journal, The Botanical Artist, which is full of wonderful articles about the field.

If there is one name that is synonymous with botanical art in the 21st century, it is that of Shirley Sherwood, who is not an artist but a generous patron of the field.  I first learned of her through her books on botanical art that feature pieces from her collection as well as other works (Sherwood, 1996, 2001, 2005).  These are fascinating to read, and her artistic taste is superb.  Sherwood has funded a gallery in her name at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew where contemporary botanical art as well as historical collections are exhibited.  Her husband James Sherwood, a well-known businessman, supports her interest in botany, and it’s a credit to them both that botanical art—and more broadly interest in plants—have flourished thanks to them.

Three other trends in botanical art worth noting include the focus many botanical artists have on picturing endangered species.  There have been several exhibits with this theme in botanical gardens in different countries, including one at NYBG sponsored by the ASBA.  Also, artists have been invited to participate in a number of florilegia projects.  Perhaps the best known was sponsored by Britain’s Prince Charles and focused on plants grown at his Highgrove estate.  His foundation also supported the publication of The Transylvania Florilegium picturing Romanian plants.  The Brooklyn Botanic Garden is continuing to sponsor its on-going project, a florilegium of plants in the garden.

The final trend I want to mention is the broadening of subject matter for botanical art.  Besides what would be considered traditional subjects and formats, some artists have been daring in taking on subjects such as dying and decaying foliage.  This may not seem particularly interesting, yet some of these pieces are remarkable, such as the work of Jessica Shepherd.  Not only are they beautiful, but they focus attention on a portion of the plant life cycle that we often neglect.  A decaying leaf with its myriad colors and lacy structure is a wonder that we usually just rake up and throw in the compost pile.  Also, more botanical artists are taking on ecology by presenting plants in context, as they grow in nature.  Margaret Mee, the British artist known for her works on the Brazilian flora, was a master of this genre but many others use this approach such as Jenny Hyde-Johnson of South Africa.  In other words, there are more and more wonderful things to look at in the botanical art world.

References

Kingdon, J. (2011). In the eye of the beholder. In M. R. Canfield (Ed.), Field Notes on Science and Nature (pp. 129–160). Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Nickelsen, K. (2006). Draughtsmen, Botanists and Nature: The Construction of Eighteenth-Century Botanical Illustrations. Springer.

Sherwood, S. (1996). Contemporary Botanical Artists. New York: Cross River Press.

Sherwood, S. (2001). A Passion for Plants: Contemporary Botanical Masterworks. London, UK: Cassell.

Sherwood, S. (2005). A New Flowering: 1000 Years of Botanical Art. Oxford, UK: Ashmolean.

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