Women’s Ways of Representing Plants

Linnaea borealis, collected and mounted by George Watt, Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh

This is the last post in a series on women and botany (1,2,3), and my title brings to mind botanical illustration, which by the late 18th century had become a common pursuit for women who had time for such activities.  The stories and the art of Maria Merian and Elizabeth Blackwell are brought up in almost all discussions of this topic, but there were many women painters of plants from professional illustrators to gifted amateurs.  An example of the former is Françoise Basseporte (1701-1780) who was taught by the Claude Aubriet at the Jardin du Roi in Paris and after his death took up his position as official botanical artist for the garden.  In the 19th century many women illustrated botanical books, sometimes for their husbands, and in other cases as professional artists.  Among the latter was Sarah Drake, who worked for the British botanist John Lindley and for many years lived with his family.

There are great websites (1,2,3) and books (Kramer, 1996) on women botanical artists of the past and present, but here I want to look beyond those who produced published work.  With the internet, and the digitization of museum and library collections, more botanical illustrations are available on the webThe Linda Hall Library has a botanical manuscript with watercolors by a young woman named Mary Major.  They are based on Frederick Nodder’s illustrations for Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Letters on the Elements of Botany.  The Whipple Museum of the History of Science has an album created by Eliza Brightwen that combines drawings with cutouts, notes, and even a few specimens.  It’s a reminder that there are all levels of sophistication in botanical art.

When the Royal Horticulture Society’s library at their Wisley garden relocated to a new building, the librarians found a copy of James Edward Smith’s The English Flora with the name of the owner Isabella A. Allen written inside.  However, they could discover no information about this individual.  When the BBC posted an article on the find, there were many replies and within in 24 hours, she was identified as Isabella Ann Allen (1810-1865) who lived in the Malvern Hills near the Cotswold.  The BBC ran another post a few weeks later, as did the RHS.  The reason for the interest was that the book not only contained plant cuttings between its pages, but an elaborate and whimsical watercolor labeled “The Botaniste” with a woman’s head popping out of flower, presumably Isabella Allen.  

Beyond watercolor, there were other ways women documented plants, embroidery being one of the most common.  There is the famous case of Mary Delany and her almost thousand paper cutouts of flowering plants.  What is less well known is a technique from around the same time that was practiced by Queen Charlotte, wife of the British King George III, and by her daughters.  They were all accomplished artists, having taken lessons from, among others, the famous German artist, Franz Bauer, who worked at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew for many years when it was also a home of the royal family (Laird & Weisberg-Roberts, 2009).  Henry Noltie, a curator emeritus at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh and a historian of botanical art, has written a blog post about a small painting on black paper attached to a herbarium specimen at Kew.  It was included in an exhibit on the accomplishments of Charlotte and two other women in the royal family (see earlier post).  Noltie saw the sheet and was intrigued, so when the specimen was returned to Kew he took a closer look and investigated its backstory.

The drawing is of a small plant Erophila verna and is attached to a specimen in the collection of John Lightfoot, which, after his death, was bought by George III for Charlotte to add to her herbarium (see image above).  Lightfoot was chaplain and botany teacher to Margaret Bentinck, a friend of both Charlotte and Delany.  in fact, many of Delany’s cutouts were done while she was staying at Bentinck’s estate, Bulstrode, which Charlotte and George often visited.  That’s where Charlotte saw Delany’s cutouts and then urged Joseph Banks, the unofficial head of Kew, to provide the artist with plants.  By 1788, both Bentinck and Delany were dead, but Charlotte still had a passion for plant art and became fascinated by a technique devised by a wealthy couple, William and Frederica Lock, who had also known Delany and were later presented to the royal family.  The Locks would take a flattened specimen and forcefully press it into a piece of black paper to make a good impression.  Then they would paint the impression with gauche, an opaque watercolor paint.  It was a clever way to get a head start on a drawing.

Charlotte took to this process enthusiastically, and according to her friend Fanny Burney, the Queen had “a violent hankering” for the technique in which she was instructed by the Locks, who also taught her three daughters in “almost daily” lessons.  Unfortunately, Noltie could not find clear evidence that the E. verna was done by a royal, but the date on it of March 1788 is telling since at this time Burney wrote of Charlotte’s “hankering,” and the queen herself had written the Earl of Bute, one of her botanical advisers, about the technique.  I am not sure why I find this small painting and its story so intriguing, perhaps it’s just the idea that a queen could be subject to the latest crafting fad like anyone else.  In any case I am very grateful to Henry Noltie for doing so much research on this little piece of botanical history.


Kramer, J. (1996). Women of Flowers: A Tribute to Victorian Women Illustrators. New York: Stewart, Tabori and Chang.

Laird, M., & Weisberg-Roberts, A. (2009). Mrs. Delany and Her Circle. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

2 thoughts on “Women’s Ways of Representing Plants

  1. Thank you for creating this fascinating series of blog posts, I saw the Blackwell Herbal for the first time last week at an exhibition of Botanical Women at Chawton House…

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