Art and the Herbarium: On and Off the Wall

2 Hotel Herbarium

Herbarium display at London hotel coffee shop

In the last post, I discussed recent trends in botanical illustration, scientifically correct renderings of plants that can also be aesthetically magnificent.  Though he sometimes questioned its use, especially in writings on genera (Reeds, 2004), even Carl Linnaeus agreed about its beauty.  He papered the bedroom of his country home in Hammarby with hand-painted illustrations from Christoph Trew’s Plantae Selectae.  These were done by one of the greatest botanical artists, Georg Ehret.  While the prints are still in place, they pose a problem for art historians and restorers, as Per Cullhed (2008) notes in an essay written for a Linnean Society symposium marking the 300th anniversary of Linnaeus’s birth.  Restoration would be difficult because the paper has been severely damaged in places and may not survive an intervention.  However, doing nothing means that deterioration will continue.  Cullhen likens the problem to the dilemma of preserving Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper without making it look very different from how it appeared before restoration.

Several years ago I wrote an article on the biology of interior decoration (Flannery, 2005), which, I argued, stems from biophilia, defined by E.O. Wilson (1984) as an innate urge to connect with other species.  Yes, this includes having house plants and owning dogs and/or cats, but it also means dried flowers—sort of a 3-D herbarium—and sitting on a couch with a floral chintz print.  Then there are the botanical prints that grace many people’s homes and seem to be perennial favorites.  Recently, I’ve seen a different though less widespread trend.  On my first morning in London on a visit in 2018, I planned to go to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.  But first, of course, I needed breakfast.  As I sat down to order my coffee and scone, I was amazed to see an array of framed herbarium specimens on the restaurant’s wall (see image above).  It was quite a display, and on closer examination turned out to be from an unnamed collector who pressed them in Italy in the early years of the 20th century.  They made a beautiful display.  A friend told me of a restaurant in New York with a similar presentation, and The World of Interiors magazine featured the bathroom of a stately home with framed specimens hanging over the tub (Shaw, 2019).  I am of two minds about this trend, if it can be called that.  It does get herbaria seen by a wider audience, but unaccompanied by a museum-like descriptive card, viewers might not even realize what they are seeing.  The restaurant’s wait staff had never given them a second glance until I swooned over the display, and then they did look more closely, a tiny victory for the herbarium world.

Over the centuries, most people took a different approach to surrounding themselves with flowers:  they used wallpaper.  In the case of William Kilburn, a botanical illustrator for William Curtis’s Flora Londinensis, branching out into commercial floral designs for wall coverings and fabrics turned out to be more lucrative (Nelson, 2008).  He gave up the exacting scientific work, but his designs still revealed his attention to detail.  The 20th-century botanical artist Anne Ophelia Dowden also designed fabric.  In the 21st century, individuals sometimes moved in the opposite direction.  A number of those enrolled in the Certificate Program in Botanical Illustration at New York Botanical Garden were fabric designers who had lost work when the industry moved to digital art.

There is also another aspect of floral fabric design, and that’s the use of embroidery.  This is an old tradition that began with embellishment of religious vestments in the middle ages and then became common on the clothing of wealthy men and women and in home decorations.  This work was done by professionals, usually men, but then in the Renaissance, embroidery began to be taken up by upper-class women, with several pieces even attributed to Mary Queen of Scots (Parker, 1984).  Embroiderers used patterns books that were filled with floral illustrations to be copied onto fabric.  Jacques Le Moyne, who produced exquisite flower paintings, came out of the floral fabric design tradition of the French Huguenots.  A pattern book of plants and animals for embroidery was based on his work.

Today, there are a number of fiber artists who do beautiful floral embroideries, sometimes for high-end fashion designers, sometimes as works of art.  Karen Nicol’s work is one example of these approaches.  In addition, there is one artist whose work I find particularly intriguing because it is definitely in the herbarium tradition.  Susanna Bauer presses fallen leaves and then adds embroidery to them:  in some cases “repairing” insect damage with crochet, in others carefully adding stitches to the leaves without causing them to crack.  Her pieces definitely make the viewer look more carefully at the leaf.  They provide a different dimension to our relationship with nature, something more intimate than simply pressing plant material between sheets of paper.

3 Latvis

Sarah Herzog modeling the labcoat she embroidered for her graduate adviser, Dr. Maribeth Latvis

Other artists use machine sewing to represent plants in intriguing ways, such as Sumakshi Singh’s black thread sketches on thin fabric, creating a cloth herbarium collection of ethereal plant drawings.  In addition, there are two embroiderers whose work I found on Twitter.  One is the textile artist Charlotte Lade who volunteers at the herbarium of the Natural History Museum, London and creates work based on the specimens.  Also, Maribeth Latvis, who teaches at South Dakota State University and directs the Taylor Herbarium there, tweeted that her student had asked to decorate her lab coat and returned it festooned with embroidered flowers (see above).

References

Cullhed, P. (2008). The conservation of iconic objects and Linnaeus’ books and wallpaper. In The Linnaean Legacy (pp. 135–140). Linnean Society of London.

Flannery, M. C. (2005). Jellyfish on the ceiling and deer in the den: The biology of interior decoration. Leonardo, 38(3), 239–244.

Nelson, E. C. (2008). William Kilburn’s calico patterns, copyright and Curtis’s Botanical Magazine. Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, 25(4), 361–373.

Parker, R. (1984). The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine. New York, NY: Routledge.

Reeds, K. (2004). When the botanist can’t draw: The case of Linnaeus. Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, 29(3), 248–258.

Shaw, R. B. (2019). Tack’s exempt. The World of Interiors, April, 218–227.

Wilson, E. O. (1984). Biophilia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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