Specimens, Specimens: Art

Sketch  of Aechmaea by Carl Lindman, Natural History Museum, Stockholm

It’s no secret to those who read this blog that I’m interested in the relationship between botany and art, so it won’t be surprising that I’m particularly pleased to find cases where specimens and drawings end up together on the same sheet or at least in the same folder.  This is less true today than in the past, but even in the early history of herbaria, most collections were mainly if not exclusively made up of dried plants.  After all, the point was to save plant material for reference and future study, especially for when living representatives weren’t available.  But dried plants lose some of their form and a lot of their color, so a number of early modern botanists either drew themselves or collected drawings and prints.  There were two ways to organize these different kinds of evidence; most botanists saved two separate collections:  one of images, the other of specimens.  The great Italian botanist and collector Ulisse Aldrovandi had them bound into different volumes (Findlen, 1994).

On the other hand, the Swiss physician and botanist Felix Platter had specimens on the right hand page, with a drawing or print—or both—often pasted opposite.  Though no one knows how, he managed to acquire original drawings by Hans Weiditz that were the bases of the woodcuts in Otto Brunfels 1530 herbal Herbarum vivae eicones, the first of the early modern books with good botanical illustrations.  Weiditz had done watercolors on both sides of each page.  Platter obviously felt that the information in the drawings was more important than the art as a whole, so he cut around each plant, trying to preserve as much as he could of each.  These scraps are among the images pasted opposite the plant specimens.  Platter’s notebooks provide a fascinating look into what counted as important evidence for botanists of the time and the lengths they would go to in preserving it (Benkert, 2016).

Hans Sloane’s curator, James Empson, was another proponent of juxtapositioning illustrations and specimens, especially for the material Sloane collected in Jamaica.  This was in part to insure that the two collections remained together after Sloane’s death (Rose, 2018).  The plants were drawn by Everard Kick for the plates in Sloane’s Natural History of Jamaica and the originals are bound with the specimens, again with plants on the right hand page and art on the left.  There are Chinese botanical drawings pasted into other volumes of Sloane’s collection, and they are now being removed for conservation.  The interplay between images and specimens in the study of plants could be considered so important that until well into the 20th century, they were preserved together in herbaria.  This meant the art was organized taxonomically as the corresponding specimens were and often filed in the same folders.  This was good for taxonomists using the collection but not necessarily for the images.  Chemicals in the plants often seeped into the paper and damaged them as well as the paints.

It’s not surprising that this practice is no longer followed in most herbaria, with the art usually removed to the botanical library.  At some institutions such as the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew this is a massive and continuing process.  In a large herbarium, it might be impractical to hunt through every folder, though this is what Henry Noltie did at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh where he was a herbarium curator at the time.  But extraction was only the first part of his project.  He then did background research to attempt to reunite drawings that were done by the same artist or were collected by a particular botanist, especially for Indian collections.  This took years because the RBGE’s plant collection is rich in specimens from around the world that were sent back to Edinburgh, often by physicians trained in the city by illustrious botanists like John Hope and John Hutton Balfour.  Noltie has written on his findings in several books (2002, 2007, 2016, 2017).

The same removal process has gone on at many other institutions, with important finds along the way.  Discovering many of Carl Lindman’s specimens from Brazil in the Swedish Museum of Natural History herbarium led curator Mia Ehn to do a study of his  art work, and collections manager Christine Niezgoda has been unearthing beautiful Japanese prints from folders in the Field Museum Herbarium.  This is great for the art, but I am not sure it’s good for taxonomy.  Yes, in this day and age, some of the art is available digitally, but it usually requires a certain amount of hunting to find it since it’s not linked with related specimens:  it isn’t right there with the specimen for side-by-side comparison.  There are more projects to digitize specimens than illustrations, and rightly so, but I would argue that reuniting these items digitally should be a priority, not only for their taxonomic value, but for their cultural value as well.  A great deal of this art was done by indigenous artists who had been trained in botanical illustration, resulting in fascinating styles that blend the two worlds.  The great attention being paid to their work now is part of an effort to bring light to hidden issues in colonization.

There is a tantalizing solution to the linkage issue on the horizon, something I’ve written about here before but it bears repeating as it develops.  The IIIF, a framework that arose out of the library and art worlds, is now gaining interest among botanists.  Roger Hyam who works, appropriately enough at the RBGE, is involved in a project to allow researchers to look at herbarium specimens from different institutions side by side, if they are presented via IIIF.  What if botanical illustrations could also be accessed, and might as throw in photos as well.  I’ll just leave my dream there.


Benkert, D. (2016). The ‘Hortus Siccus’ as a focal point: Knowledge, environment, and image in Felix Platter’s and Caspar Bauhin’s herbaria. In S. Burghartz, L. Burkart, & C. Göttler (Eds.), Sites of Mediation (pp. 211–239). Leiden, NLD: Brill.
Findlen, P. (1994). Possessing Nature: Museums, Collecting, and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Noltie, Henry J. (2016). The Cleghorn Collection: South Indian Botanical Drawings 1845 to 1860. Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.
Noltie, Henry J. (2017). Botanical Art from India: The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh Collection. Edinburgh: Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.
Noltie, Henry J, & Scotland). (2002). The Dapuri drawings: Alexander Gibson and the Bombay Botanic Gardens. Edinburgh: Antique Collectors’ Club.
Noltie, H.J. (2007). Robert Wight and the Botanical Drawings of Rungiah and Govindoo. Edinburgh: Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.
Rose, E. D. (2018). Natural history collections and the book: Hans Sloane’s A Voyage to Jamaica (1707–1725) and his Jamaican plants. Journal of the History of Collections, 30(1), 15–33.

One thought on “Specimens, Specimens: Art

  1. Pingback: Specimens: The Sloane Herbarium | Herbarium World

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