I ended the last post remarking that it’s hard to fit botanical work into neat categories; the same is true of art and craft. They just can’t be separated any more than professionals are distinct from amateurs. However, craft can have connotations of amateurism, implying that professionals have raised their work to an art. Some of the examples of scrapbooks I discussed in the last post were definitely works of art; some of them less so. In this post, I want to explore the relationship between botany and crafts like embroidery. Maybe I’m being sexist when I say that the last sentence probably caused male readers to sign off. But wait, professional embroidery in many parts of the world is a male bastion, and was in Europe for many centuries. Those amazing Elizabethan clothes—for men and women—as well as elaborate furnishings were designed and sewn by men (Parker, 1984). Only gradually did embroidery become a well-developed skill among elite women and part of their education. Famously, Mary Queen of Scots embroidered elaborate emblems during her imprisonment in the home of Bess of Hardwick, the Countess of Shrewsbury and an accomplished needlewoman. Among other sources for their designs was Mary’s copy of Pietro Andrea Mattioli’s herbal, but she also had the garden of Hardwick Hall as a source of inspiration (LaBouff, 2018).
In the first post in this series, I mentioned a present-day embroiderer who goes to the garden for inspiration, and for information on the plants she renders (Aoki, 2017). But there are also artists using plant material in less conventional ways. Susanna Bauer, who is a German-born artist living in Britain, makes works by embroidering on leaves. There are a number practitioners of this art, which also involves a great deal of craft. As anyone who has worked in an herbarium knows, dried leaves can be very brittle, but Bauer chooses her materials carefully and works slowly and deliberately. Her pieces are commentaries on human/plant interactions and human/human relationships as well. Set against white backgrounds they become reminiscent of herbarium specimens where the intervention is artistic rather than scientific, yet both approaches invite close inspection.
Imke van Boekhold, a Dutch artist, used machine embroidery on wire to create three-dimensional renderings of Scottish plants for her thesis presentation. Years later, she returned to this theme, but instead, created herbarium specimens and used them as her models. The first set of work was pretty, the second set awe-inspiring. She exhibited the works and the specimens at the Natural History Museum, Rotterdam. Meanwhile in New Delhi Sumakshi Singh has taken a related tack, machine embroidering depictions of plants in black thread on see-through white fabric. Exhibited in white frames against white walls, they seem to float. She also takes several other approaches, including three-dimensional pieces floating in glass containers. Machine embroidery of this caliber requires at least as much skill as handwork and is also as time-consuming. Like Mary Queen of Scots, Singh has time to think about the forms she is creating and how they present the living world—making the familiar strange so viewers will take note and spend time considering that world.
I want to end my exploration of embroidery by jumping back to an earlier practitioner so I can also jump to a different craft. The 18th century amateur botanist Mary Delany was a keen observer of plants and created highly realistic embroidery designs as well as using those created by others. She is known for a gown decorated with 200 stitched flowers that she wore to be presented to the queen. However, she is even better known for her collages of flowers made from pieces of colored paper. She created nearly a thousand of these, beginning at age 72. Meticulously done, each has a black paper background and each depicts a single species, as in botanical illustrations (Orr, 2019).
In her early pieces, Delany often added details in watercolor, but as she became more adept almost all features were made of paper pieces. Her passionflower is incredible (see above). Like herbarium specimens, these collages are not quite two dimensional; they have depth and texture and she used mottled papers to increase the perception of texture. Delany was a dedicated gardener of the inquisitive sort who wanted to know as much about plants as possible. This interest was shared by her good friend, Margaret Bentinick, the Duchess of Portland. Together they took botany lessons with Bentinck’s chaplain, John Lightfoot author of a flora of Scotland. They also worked on dissecting flowers and creating herbarium specimens. All these activities require attention to detail and digital skill; they are related and cannot be totally separated—they enrich each other.
After Delany’s death, a few tried to imitate her technique, including William Booth Grey, but these works were not as detailed and lifelike; they lacked the energy and enthusiasm that she put into her art. Delany had for years done paper cutting, including silhouettes in black paper. At the time and even earlier such paper art was commonplace, particularly in Germany where it was known as Scherenschnitt. In the late 17th century Johann Christoph Ende created what could be called a paper herbarium, with cutouts of two hundred plants. Beneath each he gave the German and then Latin name as well as a description of the plant and its uses. Some are so intricate as to be lace-like. Ende was a skilled craftsman indeed, and an amateur botanist as well (see below).
Aoki, K. (2017). Embroidered Garden Flowers. Boulder: Roost.
LaBouff, N. (2018). Embroidery and Information Management: The Needlework of Mary Queen of Scots and Bess of Hardwick Reconsidered. Huntington Library Quarterly, 81(3), 315–358. https://doi.org/10.1353/HLQ.2018.0014
Orr, C. C. (2019). Mrs Delany: A Life. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Parker, R. (1984). The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine. New York: Routledge.