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.

References

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.

Botany and Art: Analogy

“Portrait of the Head of a Philosopher,” second century AD Roman, Art Institute of Chicago

This post on botany and art is very different from the others in this series (1,2,3), since it doesn’t involve specimens of any kind.  But I am including it because it is about what I consider an interesting tie between the two fields, a methodological connection.  It is based on an article in the online journal Aeon by Liam Heneghan, professor of environmental science and studies at DePaul University in Chicago.  He has done research and been involved in projects to restore damaged ecosystems.  In the Midwest, this often means attempting to preserve and revitalize remnant oak savannas and tall grass prairies. 

Heneghan begins with a rather discouraging story of how difficult restoration work can be.  About 20 years ago, he and an expert restorationist visited several wetland sites in Illinois.  His companion told of how these sites were actively rehabilitated for a number of years until they were flourishing communities of diverse plants and animals.  However, when the sites were no longer actively managed, they deteriorated, becoming, for example a monoculture of cattails where animal as well as plant diversity was lost.  A great deal of money, time, and effort had been pumped into these projects, but when funding dried up, so did the ecological complexity.  Heneghan points to the problem that what may appear to be a good restoration plan to those who know the science of species interactions may not succeed at all in practice.  Many who do significant fieldwork know this, but still projects fail.

This is where Heneghan brings in the art.  He began studying art, creating illustrations for one of his books, and spending significant amounts of time at the Art Institute of Chicago.  Perhaps because of his interest in damaged landscapes, he was attracted to damaged art, especially ancient sculptures that told something of their physical history.  As a case in point he discusses “Portrait of the Head of a Philosopher,” from second century AD Roman (see image above).  The life-sized marble head has no nose, gaps at the back of the head, a crack on the left side, and areas of discoloration that might be the result of burial at some point.  I have not seen this work, but I’ve seen many of comparable age in other museums and get Heneghan’s point:  this piece reveals its history.  It is not that conservators have neglected the sculpture, but that they have respected its past.

Before “Portrait of the Head of a Philosopher” was acquired by the Art Institute in 1924, its nose had been replaced, its chin repaired, and its hair curls reshaped.  Heneghan notes that such “aggressive” restoration is now a thing of the past; for today’s conservators, less is definitely more.  The nose was removed and in a sense the story of the philosopher’s journey through time was returned to him.  Heneghan sees in this a lesson for work in environmental restoration.  He argues that perhaps the goal should not be to return a habitat to its “original” condition, because how can we even know what that was, any more than we can know what the philosopher’s head looked like in the second century AD.  He suggests that it might be more judicious and feasible to stabilize an area and at least prevent further deterioration than to forge ahead with a large-scale project.  It’s important to accept that the science of environmental restoration is in its infancy, and therefore it isn’t easy to predict the consequences of an intervention, just as it was impossible for 19th-century art restorers to predict what would happen to the glues and paints they used, sometimes doing irreversible damage to artworks. 

There are any number of internet videos of restorers at the world’s great museums doing meticulous studies of masterpieces, sometimes over a period of years, before they even come up with a plan of what to do and not to do.  This research usually involves quite an expense in x-ray and other imaging equipment, chemical analysis of the layers of paint, study of surface features, etc.  And lest you think that environmental restorers face pressures from multiple constituencies including scientists, politicians, lawyers, taxpayers, and local residents that those in the insular museum world don’t have to deal with, think again.  There are some who consider that restoration of Michelangelo’s paintings in the Sistine Chapel garish, while that of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper in need of more work.

What Heneghan is saying in this article is that there is no perfect intervention in art or in nature, that humans have to accept that they go into any project with limited expertise, so it is best to go slowly and at each stage to evaluate what has worked and what hasn’t before plunging deeper into the unknown.  Just as the philosopher’s head bears its history well, so too could a prairie or woodland.  Its residents might not be those that were there 200 years ago, but they may represent a relatively staple ecosystem that, like the sculpture, will endure more change, but will still be there 200 years from now, or even a thousand.  And to put in a word about herbaria, because I can’t help myself, there are also restoration issues involved in whether to remount a specimen or repair a damaged sheet.  Here too, the art world may be of assistance.  

Botany and Art: States of Preservation

Resin block with specimens of Pinus bungeana created by Sheila Magullion, in the Arnold Arboretum Library

Herbaria are usually described as collections of preserved plant material, rather than just as stacks of pressed plants because most herbaria house boxes for bulky items like pine cones, material such as orchid flowers preserved in alcohol, and maybe plant morphology slides, boxes of seeds, wood samples, and seaweed albums.  What I find interesting in visiting collections is that curators usually have such items they want to display, ones that may never be digitized or get into online catalogues but are nonetheless fascinating.  Sometimes items like albums are preserved in botanical libraries.  It seems to me that if these establishments are in the same institutions as herbaria, the libraries tend to receive treasures that have value, but are either not likely to be used by a plant taxonomist or are in some way so different in makeup from what is ordinarily the purview of herbarium curators or managers that the library is considered a better place for them.  The assumption, which is usually based in fact, is that a librarian will know how to take care of it, or will dig around until they find out how to take care of it.  Librarians know how to find answers.

That may be why a collection of 288 blocks of polyester resin, each embedded with dried plant specimens resides in the Arnold Arboretum Horticultural Library.  These were made in the 1970s at the behest of Gordon P. DeWolf, Jr., a taxonomist at the arboretum.  He envisioned such a collection as ideal for educational purposes.  Herbarium sheets are too fragile to be passed around among a group of students, but similar specimens embedded in resin are tough.  However, making them requires a great deal of work.  DeWolf convinced an arboretum volunteer, Sheila Magullion, to take on the project, and it’s her work that is now found in the library.   She wrote an article on her experience in creating this collection for the arboretum’s journal, Arnoldia (Magullion, 1975).  This was after she had several years experience and could confidently describe what did and didn’t work. 

Right on the first page, Magullion mentions the “insidious” odor of the syrupy resin.  So the work area had to be away from food, a kitchen would not do, and it had to be where the molds could be left for several days to harden undisturbed.  Also, it was best that the work surface not be made of anything too precious:  drops of resin were difficult if not impossible to remove completely.  I picture the best venue as an airy garage with an old kitchen table on its way to the dump.  What is amazing is that Magullion was not deterred by these problems and many others she encountered.  It is obvious that there was a great deal of trial and error involved.  And even if, like me, you have no intention of ever attempting such a project—and I am sure there are easier and safer ways to do something similar today—this article is a great lesson in observation of plant material and how it behaves during drying, being soaked in resin, and hardening. 

Magullion warns that the plant material has to be totally dried and the specimens should be as good as possible since imperfections appear magnified through the resin.  Also, care must be taken in the use of the catalyst that cures the resin.  The process is exothermic, and if there is too much heat released too quickly, the plant tissue can bleach and the cast crack.  But add too little catalyst and the resin could become cloudy.  There are also clear instructions on using tweezers to place the plant material on the base coat of resin, and also on sanding and polishing the finished product.  Some blocks have a card attached to the base that gives the name of the plant and the parts included.  These can be read through the resin and give the specimens a herbarium-sheet look (see image above). 

I mentioned in the first post in this series that there is no perfect way to represent a plant, and these blocks demonstrate this.  The specimens are well protected, and floating in space gives them an oddly pleasing quality.  Obviously, this technique hardly became a herbarium staple, but along with the 19th-century educational posters (Van der Schueren, 2011) and plant models that grace many herbaria and botanical libraries, they are worth preserving for their beauty as well as for what they say about the culture of a particular time when a craft in favor in the larger culture seeps into the world of plants. 

After her article on embedding, Magullion (1977) wrote another one on treating material from trees and shrubs with glycerin to preserve them without pressing.  The purpose here was primarily to create decorative arrangements that would be long lasting.  The cuttings were sprayed with glycerin, not dipped in it.  Again, through trial and error Magullion figured out what would work and what wouldn’t, so the bulk of the article is a list of plant families and what works best for each.  As she mentions:  “Some families refuse to absorb the glycerin mixture; some absorb it, but with poor results; and some are outstanding in their response” (p. 289).  She also found that timing was important.  For the smoke bush, Cotinus, “large plumy fruit panicles last very well if collected no later than July.”  For the birch family, foliage didn’t respond well if collected early in the year, but could be preserved if picked in August and September.  Again, I won’t be doing any of this, but it is interesting to read through the families and see what Magullion discovered.

References

Magullion, S. (1975). Botanical embedding. Arnoldia, 36(6), 265–275.

Magullion, S. (1977). A guide by plant family to foliage preservation. Arnoldia, 37(6), 289–304.

Van der Schueren, K. (2011). The Art of Instruction: Vintage Educational Charts from the 19th and 20th Centuries. San Francisco: Chronicle.

Botany and Art: Intimacies

Lupinus argenteus, Silver Lupine” by Susan Rubin

The last post discussed how herbarium sheets are sometimes collages with illustrations of different kinds attached along with the plant material.  There was an interesting case in Taxon recently of an illustration used to identify a type specimen (Fleischmann and Gonella, 2020).  The species in question is Drosera intermedia, an insectivorous plant found from eastern North America, through the Caribbean to tropic South America.  As with many plants, particularly those with a relatively long botanical history, nailing down the first publication of a name and the type specimen can be complicated.  The authors here wade through the literature and cite a 1798 publication by Johann Dreves and Friedrich Hayne, though a 1800 publication by Hayne is usually given.  Why I find this case interesting is that Fleischmann and Gonella argue that a specimen in the Munich herbarium is the lectotype because it so closely resembles the illustration of the plant in the 1798 publication.  It is known that Haynes himself did the drawing on which it is based. 

This seems relatively straightforward, except for the fact that there is no indication on the sheet linking the specimen to Haynes.  The handwriting on the label is that of Johann Christian von Schreber, who traded and bought plants from a number of botanists.  This sheet is part of a Schreber collection acquisitioned in 1813 by the herbarium in Munich’s Bavarian Natural History Collections.  Also on the sheet is a not in the handwriting of Albrecht Roth, who was an early proponent of the idea that plants could attract and digest insects and thus derive nourishment from them.  Schreber thought this outlandish.  Sending the plant to Schreber was less about taxonomy and more about plant physiology.  In the note Roth writes that “the incurved leaves [of the specimen] hold dead insects.”  Roth published an article in which he remarked that he had received Drosera from Haynes with insects trapped in the leaves, providing evidence for linking Haynes’s illustration to Schreber’s specimen through Roth. 

This is a case of what I would call investigative botany, practiced by those taxonomists who also have a love of history.  The “excuse” is to find type specimens for species that are untypified or mis-typified, but it is also a way to satisfy an urge to solve a mystery.  Here the hunt was made more challenging, and perhaps therefore more intriguing, because the fate of the bulk of Haynes’ herbarium is unknown, and a search of what does exist turned up nothing related to the Drosera.  It’s suggestive of the more casual attitude toward specimens used in describing a species at that time that Haynes sent at least one of them on to Roth, and then Roth passed it on to Schreber in service of his insectivore argument.  It took dogged work to link the specimen’s provenance to the illustration in the original description, which is very similar.

My other two examples of intimate relationships between specimens and art are of a different kind and definitely tend toward the artistic rather than scientific end of the spectrum.  The first is a painting I saw on the web some time ago, and it keeps coming to mind.  It is “Lupinus argenteus, Silver Lupine” by Susan Rubin.  It won the Group Gold Medal from the Royal Horticultural Society London in 2017.  It’s a work of trompe-l’oeil and shows a herbarium specimen of the lupine, with faded colors and all the associated trappings of such a sheet.  This one is stamped from the Denver Botanic Gardens (where Rubin teaches) and includes a typed label, accession number, and barcode sticker.  Overlaid on it is a fresh lupine flower with its beautiful blue-purple inflorescence and green leaves.  The cutting has a small paper label and casts a shadow on the sheet suggesting it has merely been placed there for a moment to compare the live and dead specimens. 

Not surprisingly, Rubin is a botanical artist and much of her work is more traditional, though tending toward the artistic rather than the documentary.  She has done a series of trompe-l’oeil paintings, but none of the others have a herbarium specimen.  They show illustrations, sometimes taped or pinned to an artist’s table along with notes, preparatory sketches, a pencil or two, and other tools of the trade.  Somehow, these additions make the work more lively as it seems in the act of becoming.  The lupine is an indication of the accuracy of her work, and how it is grounded in the plant itself. 

Finally, I want to mention a rather odd convergence of art and science.  This was brought to my attention by the Swedish historian of science Anna Svensson, whose dissertation is a wonderful example of how history, botany, art, and the digital environment can be interwoven.  Anna spent some time at the Botanical Garden in Florence hunting among its treasures.  One that she found was a small bound herbarium where some of the flowers were painted over to give them more color.  I’ve written about early herbaria where missing petals or leaves were painted in, but the plants themselves were unadorned.  The Florence example went a step further.  It’s definitely at the far, far end of the scientific/artistic spectrum and a very unscientific move, but fascinating nonetheless. 

Reference

Fleischmann, A., & Gonella, P. M. (2020). Typification and authorship of Drosera intermedia (Droseraceae). Taxon, 69(1), 153–160. https://doi.org/10.1002/tax.12158

Note: I would like to thank Susan Rubin for allowing me to use her art in this post.

Art and Botany: Methods of Recording

Watercolor of Neopolitan apple (1904) by Bertha Heiges, U.S. Department of Agriculture Pomological Watercolor Collection. 

In this series of posts on botany and art (1,2,3), I’m looking at a number of ways botanists have documented plants, from Ludwig Reichenbach having herbarium specimens traced to create illustrations (1), to Joseph Banks using the works of Chinese artists as guides in plant collecting (2).  In this post, I focus on recording the attributes of fruits.  My reference is an article from the first issue of the British Journal of Pomology and Horticultural Science, published in 1919.  I cannot recall how I came to this carefully researched piece.  The author is Herbert E. Durham, President of the Herefordshire Association of Fruit Growers and Horticulturalists.  Fruits, particularly apples I would say, were important to Durham, and he was not happy with the inaccuracies he found in illustrations which were supposed to distinguish among varieties. 

Durham considered it difficult if not impossible to communicate the precise placement of structures within the fruit without illustrations, and even illustrations could miss the mark.  He writes of a book on British apples in which a plate is described as presenting round fruits where the diameter and height were about equal, yet the height of one fruit was given as 72 mm and the width 85; another fruit referred to as oblong had a height of 80 mm and a diameter of 82 mm.  He adds that he himself has “often been surprised when measuring” (p. 30).  After introducing other types of errors in illustrations of whole fruits as well as sections through them, Durham presents several approaches to getting dimensions and placement right.  I am definitely not going into all the details here; much of the article reads like an instruction manual.  But I will briefly note some of the techniques to give a flavor of the care Durham took in his work of representing different varieties, documenting them for the future.  Many of the varieties he cared so much about no longer exist, but his working method says a lot to future horticulturalists and botanists about the importance of precision in any form of representation.

To draw the shape of a fruit accurately, Durham devised a simple wooden tool into which a pencil was inserted; this “projection tracer” allowed drawing the circumference and picking up any unevenness in it.  Needless to say, he describes not only his method, but how to construct such a tool.  He also presents a device, essentially a blade, to cut longitudinal and transverse sections through the fruit to reveal the seeds, intercarpellary space (which he calls the axial sac), and the stalk attachment.  The blade has to be very thin, sharp, about 6 inches long, and attached to a bow so it can be accurately placed to get an ideal central longitudinal cut.  Durham has unkind words about some drawings made from cuts that were off-center.

Of course, Durham provides illustrations to show what should be revealed in each cut, using apples and pears as examples.  The images also demonstrate what he thinks a good illustration should and should not include.  These are very simple line drawings with just a surface outline, and the positioning of the seeds and sac wall.  Really they are diagrams, extremely clear and understandable.  They would not be considered works of art, but they are meticulously drawn for accuracy and clarity, Durham’s chief criteria.  He is trying to represent rather subtle differences among varieties, but only in regards to particular traits.

This approach is very different from that used in another set of fruit illustrations that I find particularly satisfying.  They are the pomological watercolors created by artists for the USDA in the early part of the 20th century and now preserved in its National Agricultural Library.  There is an unofficial Twitter feed (@pomological) that posts images from this digitized collection.  I love to look at these illustrations, most picture the whole fruit along with a cross section that even Durham would admire.  There are also images of fruit with pathologies and many of these are strangely beautiful.  Now a book of the illustrations has been published (Landy, 2021).

After all this emphasis on accuracy, I want to end with another way to record fruit form that intrigues me.  I read about it a number of years ago in a blog post from the Smithsonian Institution’s Field Book Project.  Emily Hunter, one of the transcribers, described a notebook kept by a US Department of Agriculture botanist, David Griffiths (1867-1935) during a collecting trip to Texas and Mexico in 1905.  He was focusing on the Opuntia genus of cacti, and specifically on their fruit which are fleshy—I think Durham would describe them as oblong.  On several pages, there are blotches stamped, and they vary in size and shape with the species discussed in the accompanying notes.  While Griffiths doesn’t identify what they are, Hunter surmises that they were made by cutting the fruit in half and pressing the cut surface to the paper.  Each pressing is outlined in pencil and the central fleshy area is also outlined.  This was a rough-and-ready form of nature printing, but an effective one.  Griffiths had neither the tools nor probably the time to make measurements and diagrams like Durham’s, but he figured out how he could quickly get the basic information down in his notebook.  I think of their respective images as a link between these two horticulturalists, in different countries, with very different interests and methods, but united in wanting to do justice to the forms they studied.

References

Durham, H. E. (1919). The Recognition of Fruit—Graphic Records. Journal of Pomology and Horticultural Science, 1(1), 28–36.

Landy, J., United States, & Department of Agriculture. (2021). An illustrated catalog of American fruits & nuts: The U.S. Department of Agriculture Pomological Watercolor Collection. Los Angeles: Atelier.

Art and Botany: “Painting One’s Bentham”

Watercolor of Sonchus from Richard Dreyer’s copy of Smith’s Flora Britannica, Linnean Society Library

Since I am not a careful researcher, I don’t take note of where I come upon a particular reference.  That’s why I have no idea what led me to a brief piece in The Archives of Natural History by David E. Allen (2004) entitled “An 1861 Instance of ‘Painting One’s Bentham.’”  The Bentham in question was George Bentham, the British botanist and author of Handbook of the British Flora, first published in 1858.  Though not illustrated, it was well-received by the audience he was targeting:  those who were interested in identifying plants but didn’t have a strong botanical background.  Besides clear descriptions, the book had a useful introduction, listed common names before Latin ones, and had an easy-to-use key, which hadn’t been available earlier for British plants.  

Professional botanists, on the other hand, had several complaints about the work.  First, those who liked precise demarcations among species (termed “splitters”) were displeased with Bentham’s tendency to ignore small distinctions within what he considered a single species.  He was a “lumper” as was Joseph Dalton Hooker, his associate at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.    In addition, his critics were not impressed with Bentham’s knowledge of the British flora.  He had spent most of his youth and did most of his early botanizing on the European continent, and later did little collecting in Britain.  He relied on herbarium specimens and that was seen as a weakness.  Even the common names he cited were considered odd, since he used the rather eccentric terminology of John Stevens Henslow

Despite this, sales of Bentham’s first edition were so strong that the publisher suggested a second, revised edition with the addition of illustrations.  These were done in black and white by the distinguished botanical illustrator Walter Hood Fitch.  This version, printed in two volumes, went through a series of editions into the 20th century, with the last revisions done by Joseph Hooker after Bentham’s death.  The Fitch drawings were so clear and the paper good enough that many users took to coloring in the images of the species they encountered, and also adding notes on where and when they saw the plants.  This became known as “painting one’s Bentham.”  David E. Allen (2003) writes that it isn’t clear when this practice began, but “it was known to have a wide following among debutantes in the 1920s.” (p. 230).  He goes on to note that the practice “broadly coincided with the onset of the revulsion against collecting for herbaria.” (p. 230).  He doesn’t comment on the reason for the revulsion, though by that time the entire natural history collecting craze of the 19th century was over.  It was definitely easier to fill in drawings, than collect plants, get them safely home and then press, dry, and mount them.  There was also the issue of what to do with stacks of pressed plants, when relatively the same information could be kept in a book one already owned, with the collection data, description, and image all on the same page.

Allen followed up this article with the brief one I cited at the beginning of this post where he reports on a case of “coloring one’s Bentham” in the original unillustrated edition, a copy owned by Elizabeth Hood who lived on the Isle of Wight.  For example, in the margins of the entry for Gentiana campestris (now Gentianella campestris) she added a watercolor of the plant in flower, noting the date and place of collection on the island.  She created many other drawings throughout the book, doing a skilled job of fitting them into the one-inch margins.  Allen argues that noting the collecting information is what makes it like a herbarium, rather than just an illustrated field guide.  He also refers to other examples of artistic of additions in books including the heavily illustrated copy of James Edward Smith’s three-volume Flora Britannica (1800-1804) with watercolors by its first owner the Rev. Richard Dreyer.  It is now in the Linnean Society’s LibraryWilliam Jackson Hooker added 235 moss paintings to his copy of Dawson Turner’s Muscologiae hibernicae spicilegium (1804).  This work is illustrated, but with only 16 plates, which clearly Hooker thought was insufficient.  I am sure there are many other examples where botanists did not consider the descriptions adequate to nailing down the relevant attributes of a species. 

What particularly interested me about “coloring one’s Bentham” is that it speaks to a present-day phenomenon, so it’s another reminder that there is nothing much new under the sun.  In the past few years there has been a fad in coloring books for adults as a way to relax, relieve stress with meditative filling in, and create nice colored pictures.  The Biodiversity Heritage Library has contributed to the interest by organizing “Color Our Collections” projects with several member libraries.  This trend got a boost during the covid pandemic when everyone was looking for easy-to-access activities.  Recently, a number of herbaria, including those at Michigan State University and the Manchester Museum, have also created web-based coloring projects, examples of broadening outreach to non-botanists and enticing younger audiences.  Perhaps this will begin a trend countering the one of the early 20th-century:  people may begin to see coloring plant images as inadequate and go back to collecting specimens, or at least taking photos and recording their observations in iNaturalist or a similar app:  natural history in the ascendency once again.

References

Allen, D. E. (2003). George Bentham’s Handbook of the British Flora: From controversy to cult. Archives of Natural History, 30(2), 224–236. https://doi.org/10.3366/anh.2003.30.2.224

Allen, D. E. (2004). An 1861 instance of “painting one’s Bentham.” Archives of Natural History, 31(2), 356–357. https://doi.org/10.3366/anh.2004.31.2.356

Art and Botany: John Bradby Blake

Painting of a Gardenia created in China under the direction of John Bradby Blake, in the collection of the Oak Spring Foundation Library

In the last post, I discussed how a set of herbarium specimens was created specifically for use in the production of illustrations.  Now, I want to explore a set of illustrations, or really several sets, that were used in a way that herbarium specimens are sometimes employed, as guides in finding more plants.  When the botanist John Banister was preparing to travel to colonial Virginia as a missionary and as a plant collector for his superior, Bishop Henry Compton, he compiled a collection of specimens of North American plants from the Oxford University herbarium as a memory aide and a guide for his plant hunting (Ewan and Ewan, 1970).  Pressed plants served him well because he had enough experience with dried plants to be able to relate them to living examples of the same species when he encountered them, or could recall what they looked like if he had seen them growing in the Oxford Botanic Garden.  But for an amateur, it would be difficult to make such connections. 

This is why the story of what are called John Bradby Blake’s drawings is so intriguing.  He was a supercargo for the British East India Company (EIC).  I was unfamiliar with the term “supercargo” and all it called to mind was a super tanker.  However, it refers to EIC officers who served as cargo managers on ships, supervising loading and unloading, as well as all the details of getting the materials through customs and to their final destination.  Unlike EIC surgeons who saw to the wellbeing of the crew and employees in foreign ports, supercargos were unlikely to have much grounding in botany.  Knowing about plants and their medicinal properties was an important part of medical education until the early 20 century.  Many surgeons welcomed the opportunity to collect in foreign lands as an interesting way to fill idle hours, and perhaps earn money for their collections.  While supercargos might be interested in the financial rewards, they usually didn’t have the botanical expertise to hunt for interesting species.

John Bradby Blake was an exception.  While he had no formal botanical training, his father, who had been a ship’s captain, was interested in gardening and taught his son.  It is likely that they both visited nurseries since they lived in Westminster, the area of London with a thriving nursery trade.  Captain Blake worked with John Ellis, a British naturalist interested in importing seeds and plants from China and introducing new species of horticultural interest to Britain.  While in China, Bradby Blake arranged for Chinese artists to paint watercolors of Chinese plants in a style similar to European botanical illustrations.  He had brought a number of these with them and then sent a package of the new paintings back to England, probably to his father, in 1773.  Bradby Blake did not survive the year, but his watercolors have had a long and fascinating life and even had many offspring.  Jordan Goodman and Charles Jarvis (2017) have written an interesting article on how these were “put to work” in collecting plants in China. 

With the drawings, Bradby Blake sent a letter asking for advice on the illustrations and how they could be improved.  He wanted them to accurately depict all the characteristics necessary to identify a species.  The botanist and plant entrepreneur Joseph Banks examined the collection and eventually Banks owned them along with other Chinese paintings of plants.  Two of his associates examined them.  Daniel Solander, one of Carl Linnaeus’s students, curated Banks’s herbarium and wrote out a list of 50 drawings Bradby Blake had sent giving probable identifications and noting when needed characteristics were absent or vaguely drawn.  William Aiton used the same illustrations as something of a sales catalogue, helping him to pick out plants he would like to grow at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew where he was director under Banks’s supervision. 

This selection process became more formal in 1789 when John Lind, a naval surgeon who knew Chinese, created a chart listing the Chinese and Linnaean names for the Bradby Blake drawings and noted which species were growing at Kew.  With this information, it was possible to then send instructions to China about which plants had not yet been collected.  Along with Lind’s information, Banks sent Alexander Duncan, a surgeon serving in Canton, a book of Chinese plant illustrations that were copies of Bradby Blake’s collection and were annotated with the Chinese names.  Duncan was delighted because he could visit Chinese nurseries and show them the plants he wanted.  In 1803, Banks arranged for a permanent plant collector in China, William Kerr.  This further organized the acquisition of desirable plants by Kew.  Kerr created a garden where he could harvest seeds and also grow plants for transport back to Britain, and he had at his disposal the same illustrations as Duncan did.

The EIC commissioned Kerr to have a set of plant illustrations made by Chinese artists for display at India House, its London headquarters.  The first set of 400 numbered drawings was completed in two years.  From then on, Kerr cross-referenced plants he sent with the drawings so William Aiton at Kew would be able to know what he was receiving.  In 1817, John Reeves, a EIC tea inspector, received permission to copy Kerr’s India House collection.  They were produced in Canton and sent to members of the council of the Royal Horticultural Society.  In many cases, these drawings are similar to Bradby Blake’s and others that were in Banks’s collection.  This is a fascinating story intertwining cross-cultural botanical art, plant collecting, and artistic reproduction. 

References

Ewan, J., & Ewan, N. (1970). John Banister and His Natural History of Virginia 1678-1692. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Goodman, J., & Jarvis, C. (2017). The John Bradby Blake Drawings in the Natural History Museum, London: Joseph Banks Puts Them to Work. Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, 34(4), 251–275. https://doi.org/10.1111/curt.12203

Art and Botany: Tracing

Illustration of Pulsatilla vulgaris from Reichenbachs’ Icones Florae Germanicae et Helveticae, Library of the University of Vienna.

On a number of occasions in this blog I’ve written on the subject of art and botany in relation to herbaria, primarily because the topic interests me and I think it has a number of interesting facets.  Apparently some people agree, since I’ve received positive comments about such posts.  I see this as an excuse to tackle the topic again.  This time I am going to focus on specific articles that deal with the subject in a variety of ways, beginning with a piece by Marianne Klemun (2009), a professor of history at the University of Vienna.  She writes about a collection of specimens found by Bruno Wallnöfer (2002) at Vienna’s Natural History Museum.  They belonged to the German botanist, ornithologist, and physician H.G. Ludwig Reichenbach (1793-1879), who became director of the natural history museum in Dresden.

In 1834, Reichenbach began a project that was completed in 1909, 30 years after his death.  It was an illustrated guide to the plants of Germany and Switzerland.  His aim was to create a reference that could be used by a broad audience.  As natural history was gaining attention, there was a need for publications that making it easier for non-specialists to learn about plants, particularly the plants found growing around them.  Illustrations would not only make a guide more visually appealing, but would aid in identifying plants the user encountered.

Reichenbach had clear ideas about what such illustrations should look like to do the job.  That’s where the Vienna specimens come into the picture.  The collection Klemun analyzes was presumably kept separate because the sheets were different from the usual ones in terms of their composition, recorded information, and purpose.  The specimen sheets have little written information on them, just the names of the species and the number of the plate illustrating them.  This is strong evidence that the collection was made specifically for the purpose of being used as models for botanical art.  Another indication is that there are usually added pencil drawings of flowers and fruits, when the specimens lacked them; these additions also appear on the plates.  The sheets and the plates are the same size, so there would be no need to enlarge or reduce the drawings.  Also, against what was becoming standard practice by this time, there were often several species, or at least several varieties or subspecies, on a single sheet.  This allowed for comparison among similar plants and reduced the number of plates, though there were ultimately over 1,000 in the 24 volumes published.

Wallnöfer and Klemun both discuss the processes involved in converting what appears on the sheets into finished drawings for use in engraving the plates.  While Reichenbach was assisted by artists, he was himself an excellent artist so he added to and corrected the pencil drawings.  Many of the drawn additions were not taken from life but from other illustrations; copying was a common practice at the time, inherited from earlier generations of botanists (Nickelsen, 2006).  The composition of a plate was based on a tracing of the specimen, creating an outline that could be filled in.  Klemun compared the plant material with the plates and found that the illustrations were frequently simpler than the herbarium sheets.  Leaves might be removed, branches cut down, or elements more widely spaced.  The flower parts and other additions were carefully placed to avoid clutter, but essentially it was easy to match the illustrations to sheets, and having the plate numbers on the sheets corroborated the comparisons. 

Reichenbach saw aesthetic appeal as important to his mission of making botany attractive both as an intellectual pursuit and a pleasant one.   In terms of accuracy, Klemun compares his method to that recorded by the botanist Christoph Jacob Trew (1695-1769), who was also an accomplished artist, and worked with, among others, the incomparable Georg Ehret.  Trew had the painter make an outline, and Trew compared it to the specimen.  He did this again with the completed drawing, and along with the artist, made the comparison yet again with the plate image.  This routine is something that is not often recorded but it has been repeated numberless times by botanists and artists in a process that Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison (2007) call “four-eyed sight,” which I think is a great name for it.  Accuracy is the goal, and at each step vigilance is needed to ensure that nothing becomes less clear, less understandable. 

Klemun notes that Reichenbach’s ideas about plant morphology were influenced by those of Goethe, who saw the great variety of plant forms as related to an idealized plant form.  With this viewpoint, it was important to show not only the form of each species, but how they were related to each other, another reason species were placed next to each other.  She also makes the point that Reichenbach used herbarium sheets as “epistemic things,” in the sense that, the 20th-century German molecular biologist and philosopher Hans-Jörg Rheinberger (1997) uses the term.  In other words, the specimen is not simply an organism, but one that has been flattened and dried, so in that sense is human-made.  It has become a representation of knowledge and a tool for learning more about plants.  I find this an interesting idea that links to work by others on the material culture of specimens as human-made artifacts (Pedder-Smith, 2011).

References

Daston, L., & Galison, P. (2007). Objectivity. New York: Zone.

Klemun, M. (2009). Refined concentration of botanical expert knowledge and images for gaining passions for plants: From the Herbarium to the engraving via tracing. In S. Brauckmann, C. Brandt, D. Thieffry, & G. Müller (Eds.), Graphing Genes, Cells, and Embryos: Cultures of Seeing 3D and Beyond (pp. 41–55). Berlin: Max Planck Institute for the History of Science.

Nickelsen, K. (2006). Draughtsmen, Botanists and Nature: The Construction of Eighteenth-Century Botanical Illustrations. Dordrecht, Springer.

Pedder-Smith, R. (2011). The Glow of Significance: Narrating stories using natural history specimens [Thesis, Royal College of Art]. https://researchonline.rca.ac.uk/430/

Rheinberger, H.-J. (1997). Toward a History of Epistemic Things: Synthesizing Proteins in the Test Tube. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Wallnöfer, B. (2002). Über die Abbildungsvorlagen zu den Kupferstichen von Ludwig Reichenbachs “Icones Florae Germanicae et Helveticae.” Annalen Des Naturhistorischen Museums in Wien. Serie B Für Botanik Und Zoologie, 104, 553–562.

Gardens and Herbaria: Women

Embroidery of cherry tree by Bess of Hardwick, Oxburgh Hall, Norfolk, UK

This series of posts is on gardens and the herbaria that document what has been grown in them.  Most gardeners do not preserve specimens of their favorite plants, though some might press a flower or beautiful leaf between the pages of a gardening guide.  In the past however, some gardeners were so tied into botanical networks that pressing plants was an important part of their practice.  I am thinking specifically of two British noblewomen who gardened on a grand scale.  The first is Mary Somerset, Duchess of Beaufort (1630-1715), who traded plant information with such botanical notables as Hans Sloane, William Sherard, and James Petiver.  Even John Ray consulted her herbarium in writing some of his plant descriptions.

Somerset had the wealth to pay collectors for exotic plants from around the world and also to create conditions in which these plants could flourish.  She and her gardeners gave delicate plants a great deal of attention.  She was among the first to have a stove or heated greenhouse with large windows and heating under a stone floor provided by an open fire in a mobile cart on tracks so it could be moved around under the floor.  Botanists like Petiver enjoyed visiting her because of the plants he found flourishing, some of which he only knew from pressed specimens.  Somerset was assisted by William Sherard, a botanist who later worked at Oxford and whom she hired as her grandson’s tutor.  He schooled her in botany, used his connections to add many exotics to her garden, and developed her herbarium as she worked side by side with him (Davies, 2016).

The Duchess kept track of both the rare and familiar plants she grew, and in her herbarium there are pages of anemone flowers, for example, from varieties that have long since disappeared and for which the collection provides a permanent physical record of their existence.  There are few such horticultural herbaria, particularly from this period.  It is not surprising that the 12-volume Somerset herbarium is now part of Sloane’s at the Natural History Museum, London (NHM).  Later in life when she moved from her estate in Beaufort to a house and garden in Chelsea, she was Sloane’s neighbor.  Anxious to get plant names right, she corresponded with Sloane and others, admitting that neither she nor her gardener knew Latin, yet Sloane thought so highly of her cultivation skills and facilities that he had her grow medicinal plants for the Royal College of Physicians (McClain, 2001).

Somerset documented her successes not only in her herbarium but by having her plants drawn by artists including Everhard Kick, who had painted the Jamaican plants in Sloane’s collection.  Kick spent from 1703 to 1705 at Somerset’s estate depicting species she was growing.  One was a Polygala or milkwort species from the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa that was not introduced into British horticulture until 1707, suggesting that Somerset had received a plant directly from the collector, a sign of her status in the botanical network (Cottesloe & Hunt, 1986).

Somerset used Kick’s paintings and those of others as templates for embroidery designs.  She was a skilled needleworker, as were many upper-class women of her time, and flowers were a favorite subject.  In an article on Mary Queen of Scots and Bess of Hardwick, Nicole LaBouff (2018) argues that women used embroidery as a way to display and also increase their botanical knowledge.  Among the references for these women’s work was Andrea Mattioli’s herbal from Mary’s library.   They considered sewing another form of study, a way to learn about plant form and structure, an adjunct to working in the garden or creating a herbarium.  Each enriched their understanding of plants.  Since women were limited in their educational opportunities, they used such outlets to grow intellectually through what were considered feminine arts.

Years later, the constraints remained but the number of women horticulturists had grown.  The Duchess of Portland Margaret Bentinck (1715-1785) was another wealthy woman who used plants as a way to develop her intellect, her aesthetic sense, and her gardens.  Like Somerset, she had a leading botanical artist, Georg Ehret, document her plants in watercolors and teach her daughters painting.  Bentinck was also a patron to the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who later in life studied botany, seeing it as calming the emotions by focusing the mind on something outside itself.  Botany became an important manifestation of his interest in nature, especially in common species rather than exotics and horticultural “monstrosities.”  When Rousseau visited England, he stayed at Bentinck’s estate and botanized with her.  He gave her two portable herbaria since he considered a plant collection a way to reinforce botanical knowledge (Laird, 2015).

Mary Delany, known for her exquisite floral embroideries and even more for her floral paper cutouts, was a good friend of Bentinck and spent months at a time visiting her.  They studied Linnaean botany with the Rev. John Lightfoot, who organized Bentinck’s specimens, collected for her, and served as her chaplain (Laird & Weisberg-Roberts, 2009).  Through her work with Lightfoot, Delany was familiar with specimen preparation and so with arranging a plant on paper, flattening it out, and making sure all its essential features were displayed.  With her cutouts she was doing something similar and often depicted both sides of a plant’s leaves, common practice in mounting a specimen.  Delany’s collages can be likened to herbarium specimens in having more depth and texture than an illustration; there are even a few cases where Delany added real leaves to a work (see above).  Botany, specimen preparation, and art sharpened her observations and drove her to look closely and to become more connected with flower form.

References:

Cottesloe, G., & Hunt, D. (1983). The Duchess of Beaufort’s Flowers. Exeter, UK: Webb and Bower.

Davies, J. (2016). Botanizing at Badminton: The botanical pursuits of Mary Somerset, First Duchess of Beaufort. In D. Optiz, S. Bergwik, & B. Van Tiggelen (Eds.), Domesticity in the Making of Modern Science (pp. 19–40). London: Palgrave Macmillan.

LaBouff, N. (2018). Embroidery and Information Management: The Needlework of Mary Queen of Scots and Bess of Hardwick Reconsidered. 81(3), 315–358. https://doi.org/10.1353/HLQ.2018.0014

Laird, M. (2015). A Natural History of English Gardening 1650-1800. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

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

McClain, M. (2001). Beaufort: The Duke and his Duchess. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Conceptualizing Collections

A print from Herbarium H. Perrine (2010) by Mark Dion

The artist Mark Dion creates works that comment on natural history, collecting, and what doesn’t get collected.  He has been exhibiting for thirty years, producing an impressive body of work.  Just how impressive is documented in a book edited by Ruth Erickson (2020) with commentaries on his art.  It’s called Mark Dion: Misadventures of a 21st– Century Naturalist.  The title hints at Dion’s often self-deprecating approach, the underlying wit in many of his pieces, and the challenges to being a naturalist in the digital age.

I have seen a few of his works including a set of photogravure prints called Herbarium H. Perrine (2010), supposedly of marine algae specimens collected in Florida by Henry Perrine (1797-1840).  As with all of Dion’s work, this one has a complex backstory and several layers of meaning.  Most obviously, it comments on the 19th-century interest in collecting seaweed, in part fed by a general interest in natural history and also by the opening up of sea shores to tourists and vacationers (Barber, 1980).  Perrine arrived in the Florida Keys in 1838, relatively early in the area’s development.  He had been a United States consul in Mexico where he became intrigued by tropical plants.  He and he family went to the Keys to wait out the end of the Second Seminole War and then planned to move to a land-grant property where he hoped to create a settlement and cultivate tropical species.  In preparation, he planted seeds of Mexican plants and studied their growth while he also collected widely in the area.  In 1840 his home was attacked by Seminole defending their rights to the land.  Perrine was killed, his house—and specimens—burnt.  So there are no extant Henry Perrine specimens.

Dion collected algae and mounted them on herbarium sheets.  They were exhibited as the Herbarium Perrine (Marine Algae) in 1996 and became the basis of the prints Dion made later.  Like any self-respecting herbarium sheet, these are stamped with the name of the herbarium and have a “Marine Algae” stamp (see image above).  Each sheet also has a printed label with the heading:  “Ex. Herb. H. Perrine,” with lines to fill in place and date of collection, but the labels are blank, there is no information, a gesture to the missing specimens.  The irony is that Dion is highlighting a man who brought exotic plants to a fragile ecosystem; some of them later became difficult-to-control invasive weeds.  As with so much of the history of botany, this is a story about a complex passion for plants, particularly unusual ones, an interest in economic botany, colonization, humans as an invasive species, and the inherent beauty of algae.

To give the saga one more twist, the herbarium itself became part of another Dion work, an installation called South Florida Wildlife Rescue Unit: Mobile Laboratory (2006).  It included what appears to be a food truck, painted yellow, with its side panel open as if ready to sell hotdogs.  But on the counter are tools for examining specimens that would apparently be collected by biologists wearing outfits like those on two manikins alongside the truck.  This is a commentary on the continuing damage being done to Florida ecosystems by developers and by poachers looking for rare plants, particularly orchids (Orleans, 1998).  Two biologists with gear are hardly a match for such forces.

The only other Dion installation I’ve seen was part of the Carnegie Museum of Art’s biennial exhibit in 1999.  Actually, the piece was placed in the adjacent Carnegie Museum of Natural History.  There is free access between the two institutions, which makes for a wonderful blend of art and science.  Dion’s work was called Alexander Wilson—Studio, and it was just that:  a log cabin filled with what a bird artist in early 19th-century Pennsylvania would need for his work.  There were stuffed birds, a rifle, a table with art materials, clothing, a cot, etc.  Wilson emigrated from Scotland, worked as a teacher, and eventually met another famous Pennsylvania naturalist, William Bartram, who encouraged Wilson to use his obvious artistic talent in painting American birds.  Over the course of several years Wilson documented hundreds of species, discovering 26 new ones, and published nine volumes of American Ornithology.  He was followed just a few years later by John James Audubon, whose work was considered superior because birds were in more natural poses with realistic landscapes.  Dion’s tribute to Wilson is a reminder that forerunners like Wilson face unique obstacles, such as crude living conditions, lack of recognition, and difficulties in understanding subjects before painting them.  It was said that Wilson’s death at age 47 was the result of dysentery, overwork, and poverty (Kastner, 1977).  Dion does a good job of making those conditions come to life.

I’ll close by mentioning one more work of dozens that make this book well worth reading.  It is one I didn’t see, but when I read about it, the idea stuck with me.  It is called The Great Munich Bug Hunt (1993) and involved Dion and an entomologist investigating a huge tree trunk in an art gallery; they were looking for and collecting insects.  The focus was on creatures that are so often missed:  rotting wood is not always appreciated.  The fact that the two were dressed in lab coats sent the message that this was serious scientific work as well as an art installation designed to change the viewer’s sense of what is significant in nature.

References

Barber, L. (1980). The Heyday of Natural History. New York: Doubleday.

Erickson, R. (n.d.). Mark Dion: Misadventures of a 21st-Century Naturalist. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Kastner, J. (1977). A Species of Eternity. New York: Knopf.

Orlean, S. (1998). The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Obsession. New York: Ballantine.