Botany and Art: Specimens

Specimen of Planchonella spectabilis collected by J.E. Teysmann in 1877 in the National Museum of Natural History, Paris

My last set of posts was on Art and Botany (1,2,3,4).  I found so many topics I wanted to include that I’m continuing the theme for another four, with one difference.  This time, they are about Botany and Art, with plant science coming first.  I’ll begin with what may be the closest relationship between the two:  drawings on herbarium sheets.  Yes, I’ve discussed this before, but it is a fertile field in which to explore the link between science and art.  Just as textual information is necessary on a sheet, there are botanists who feel the need to include non-textual information as well.  Some botanists consider sketches important to include with specimens, particularly for traits that are less apparent in the specimen or perhaps missing altogether.  For some it is a rare addition, for others a rather common practice.  This could be considered a matter of style, just as some botanists write lengthy descriptions on labels and others are quite terse.  These differences suggest varied visions of a specimen’s role:  how much information about a plant can it convey?  There is a quote from Richard Mabey that keeps haunting me:  “The quintessence of a plant can only ever be a fantastic goal, something to travel towards but never reach” (p. 27).  No written or visual description, or the plant itself, can say it all, not even a combination of all three, but botanists continue to try.

Frequently, drawings are added later by those who have further studied the specimen, perhaps dissecting a flower.  A detailed drawings of flowers not only document what was found but also make up for the piece of tissue that might have been destroyed in the process.  There are many sheets in the Oakes Ames Orchid Herbarium at Harvard University with such pencil or ink sketches, some by Ames himself and others by botanists like Charles Schweinfurth who worked with him, as well as by those who came later.  Ames and his associates weren’t purists; many sheets in the collection have photographs, notes, and journal articles attached—anything they thought would add value to the specimen.  The most attractive additions are watercolors of live orchids done by Ames’s wife, the artist Blanche Ames.  I’ve written about this couple in earlier posts (1,2,3), so I’ll just say here that not only are Blanche’s drawings beautiful, but well document the living plant.

The British plant collector Leopold Grindon was even more avid in his additions; many of his “specimens” spread over two or three sheets, morphing into scrapbooks.  Some might consider this excessive and wasted space that could be taken up with “real” specimens, but these sheets have become historical records of the botanical and horticultural knowledge of the time and how it was recorded.  Since there are many illustrations included, the sheets provide exposure to the different ways plant art could be reproduced in the 19th century, from fine colored engravings to black and white lithographs and photographs.  Grindon’s herbarium at the Manchester Museum provides a unique take on what it means to document a species. 

To return to the more traditional linkage of specimen and drawing, an extreme example is a specimen of Begonia subhumilis from the Berlin-Dahlem herbarium.  The sheet is dominated by a drawing of a specimen with leaves and flowers, while the specimen itself is no more than fragments of flower, leaf, and bud (see image above).  I found this sheet in a Tweet post from the botanist Peter Moonlight.  It was juxtaposed with a specimen of the species that was the model for the drawing, composed of robust cuttings in the herbarium at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.  The Berlin drawing was made by Edgar Irmscher after World War II when so much of the Berlin herbarium had been destroyed and curators were attempting to replace specimens as best they could.

I found a particularly interesting juxtaposition of art and plant on a specimen of Boerlagella spectabilis (now Planchonella spectabilis) in a Taxon article on several species in the Sapotaceae family (Swenson et al., 2020).  In the Paris herbarium at the National Museum of Natural History (MNHN), it was collected by Johannes Elias Teysmann in Sumatra in 1877 and has acquired later notes and annotations.  A fruit that was originally part of the specimen was removed and dissected, with portions of it attached to a piece of a paper pasted to the sheet.  On another slip, there is a series of drawings of the dissected seed.  But what I find most interesting is that on a twig where the fruit was probably originally attached, there is a careful ink drawing of the fruit.  It is simple and lovely (see image above). 

In another Taxon article, there is a type specimen of Avena breviaristata, also from the MNHN (Gabriel et al., 2020).  Attached is a striking cross-section through the stem of this Algerian grass, obviously taken from a microscopic examination (see image below).  I think it caught my eye because it is reminiscent of some of the images drawn by the British plant morphologist Agnes Arber who specialized in monocots.  This sketch could easily hold its own as a work of abstract art, but is this comment in any way relevant to botanical science?  I think it is because aesthetics matters.  This drawing caught my eye, it pleased me, and it was one more small reinforcement of my love for plant form. 

Specimen of Avena breviaristata in the National Museum of Natural HIstory, Paris

References

Gabriel, J., Tkach, N., & Röser, M. (2020). Recovery of the type specimen of Avena breviaristata, an endemic Algerian grass species collected only once (1882): Morphology, taxonomy and botanical history. Taxon, 69(1), 142–152. https://doi.org/10.1002/tax.12187

Mabey, R. (2015). The Cabaret of Plants: Forty Thousand Years of Plant Life and the Human Imagination. New York: Norton.

Swenson, U., Lowry II, P. P., Cronholm, B., & Nylinder, S. (2020). Resolving the relationships of the enigmatic Sapotaceae genera Beauvisagea and Boerlagella, and the position of Planchonella suboppositifolia. Taxon, 69(5), 998–1015. https://doi.org/10.1002/tax.12313

3 thoughts on “Botany and Art: Specimens

  1. Pingback: Botany and Art: Intimacies | Herbarium World

  2. Pingback: Botany and Art: States of Preservation | Herbarium World

  3. Pingback: Botany and Art: Analogy | Herbarium World

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