The vast majority of herbarium specimens are pressed plants: three-dimensional living organisms transformed into two-dimensional, or almost two-dimensional, dead bodies. They are very useful, and sometimes very beautiful. I recently saw a passionflower sheet that was exquisite, perhaps in part because its features were so beautifully displayed even in its flatness. Two-dimensional botanical illustrations usually attempt to give a sense of how a plant looks in space, and there’s evidence that the first good early modern herbal illustrations were done by artists schooled in naturalism. Hans Weiditz, who did the illustrations for Otto Brunfels’s 1530 herbal, might have been a student of Albrecht Dürer, who is famous for his exquisite Great Piece of Turf.
In the late eighteenth century, the French Academy entertained a plan involving the silk flower maker Thomas Joseph Wenzel who adorned Marie Antoinette’s wardrobe. He would create cloth models of plants representing all the known species as a resource for botanical research (Tessier, 2020). Unfortunately nothing became of this scheme but around the same time, the success of wax anatomical models for teaching anatomy to medical and art students led to production of plant and fruit models. This continued into the 19th century when papier-mâché became a popular construction material. Models of plants, often with portions that could be removed to reveal the inner workings of a flower, were common in natural history museums and schools. The peak of this thirst for 3-D educational models was the extensive collection of glass flower models created for Harvard University by Rudolf Blaschka and his son and funded by the Ware family. Their daughter Mary Lee had been a student of George Goodale, the museum’s director who had conceived of the project. The fragile twigs, flowers, and plant parts are displayed attached to stiffened herbarium-sheet sized paper and presented in taxonomic order to accentuate their use as scientific tools, though nothing can detract from their aesthetic glory.
As their heavily illustrated notebooks indicate, the Blaschkas worked hard to make their plants both accurate and beautiful, developing a host of glasswork techniques to get the colors and textures right (Rossi-Wilcox & Whitehouse, 2007). They built on some of the techniques and construction tricks used by 19th century wax artists who catered not to educators but to interior decorators. Bouquets of wax flowers were a way for wealthy Victorians to fill their homes with colorful blooms even in winter months. This seems a quaint idea today, but visit a Michael’s or JoAnn’s store , and you will find a vast array of plant models, made mostly of wire and plastic, some relatively accurate representations of real species, others more fanciful. The artist Alberto Baraya has “pressed” such specimens onto herbarium sheets to document the flora he has found in public places like hotel lobbies, in part to show how fake as well as real species have become “invasive” worldwide.
The July 2022 issue of The World of Interiors, a journal I recently “cited” for its articles displaying homes resplendent with framed herbarium specimens, devoted quite a bit of space to plants, in gardens and in homes. There was even an article by Amy Sherlock called “Faux-Liage” about an “exacting bunch of artisans around the world who craft flowers in everything from feathers to clay” (p. 94). The full-page photos were spectacular. A sprig of lilac in porcelain definitely looked as delicate at the real thing. It was obvious that a pale lavender crocus was in fact made of feathers, but it was the superb work of the Parisian plumassière Maison Lemarié so it was a tour de force. The business was founded in 1880 and has been making such decorations for French couture ever since. They also make silk flowers, creating blooms that really shouldn’t be called “artificial,” a niche industry that still exists in France.
Also in the article were 18 carat gold flowers made by Christopher Royds. This reminded me of a piece by Lin Sproule, another goldsmith and a jewelry maker, who over the years was seduced into creating delicate stems including grasses made with yellow, green, and red gold. But back to “Faux-Liage”: Kirk Maxson is represented by a branch of oak leaves in hammered brass and Carmen Almon by a metal strawberry plant in “living” color. It could be considered a scientific model, and in fact Almon had been a botanical illustrator before she took up metal work. And yes, there is a wax model here as well, a lovely primrose complete with its roots, so lifelike it definitely seems like it needs to be planted before it wilts. Finally, there is a silk peony in the richest of pinks and paper flowers created by Sourah Gupta, as well as a climbing clematis vine modeled on one he saw growing on a fence.
What all the specimens in this bouquet have in common is that they are based on direct, close observation. Gupta didn’t just glance at that clematis, he studied its colors, forms, and the twists and turns of its stems. Working in three dimensions makes achieving such a life-like representation even more difficult than drawing a 2-D botanical illustration. Obviously, each has its challenges, but what all the works in this article indicate is that there are many artists today who are maintaining the tradition of creating flowers that will outlast the season, and perhaps even their owners.
Rossi-Wilcox, S. M., & Whitehouse, D. (2007). Drawing upon Nature: Studies for the Blaschka’s Glass Models. Corning, NY: Corning Museum of Glass.
Sherlock, A. (2022). Faux-Liage. The World of Interiors, July, 94–103.
Tessier, F. (2020). Modèles botanique, des modèles scientifique entre art et science. ISTE OpenScience, 1–19.