Art/Herbarium

Artwork by Leah Sobsey for “In Search of Thoreau’s Flowers: An Exploration of Change and Loss” exhibition. Harvard Museum of Natural History, digitized cyanotype

I get daily emails from Hyperallergic, a contemporary art website that definitely borders on the edgy.  Many of the essays are not to my taste, but some of them are great, particularly those written by a professor of art history, John Yau.  I scroll through the half dozen plus offerings each day, and often something catches my eye, as when I saw a detail from Silvina Der Meguerditchian’s installation, Treasures (2015).  Against a black background are pages of text, drawings, and plant specimens.  There are also various amulets and pieces of jewelry.  Of course, it was the plants that attracted me as well as their juxta-positioning with so many other interesting items.

The accompanying article by Louis Fishman gave me some context for Der Meguerditchian’s work.  She is an Armenian artist who grew up near Buenos Aires, in a family that valued their heritage, having been forced to flee Armenia during Turkish violence there in the early 20th century.  She then moved to Berlin where she engaged not only with other Armenian’s but with Turkish immigrants as well, another way into her family’s past.  It is this history that is the inspiration for Treasures.  The plants that are presented—in tiny seed containers, as gold leaf portraits, in color drawings, and as specimens—are all native to Armenia and familiar to Der Meguerdichian’s family.  They are among the plants described in a notebook of medicinal remedies she inherited from her great-grandmother.  The act of pressing plants was part of memorializing this history, infusing life into it by working with the same plants the notebook described.  This is a beautiful example of specimens being employed not as scientific documents but as profound statements about memory and life.

There are many examples of artists using specimens in their work to enrich a variety of themes.  Margherita Pevere is a Finnish artist interested in exploring questions about the way organisms change and persist.  Reliquiarium (2011) presented remains of organisms, such as a bird’s wing, a crab’s carapace, and seed pods half-eaten by mice, each set on red velvet and framed in gold, somewhat like a saint’s relics would be.  This speaks to the sacredness of life, the inevitability of dismemberment and death, and the persistence organic material past that death. 

Somewhat the same themes come up in Herbarium (2012), Pevere’s next piece.  Here she worked with a folder of plants collected along the Adriatic coast of Croatia.  When she opened it, she found that little of the plant material remained.  It had been attacked by mold and insects to the point that, along with a few fragments, there were just stains on the paper  with the tape that had held the specimens down and labels identifying them.  Pevere framed the sheets and raised questions about who really created this work:  the organisms themselves, the collector, the pests that altered them, or the artist who mounted them.  She sees this work as relating to the medieval, to memento mori—reminders of life’s transience.

Mark Dion is known for his art dealing with natural history collections and also has a work called Herbarium (2010) , but he created new specimens in memory of those belonging to the horticulturalist Henry Perrine (1797-1840).  They had been destroyed in a fire at Perrine’s Florida home that also ended his life.  The sheets are stamped “Collection of Henry Perrine” and while a label is attached, no information is provided.  These are ghost specimens of the opposite type from Pevere’s; here the plant remains and the data doesn’t.  As an aside I’ll mention that Perrine moved to Florida from Mexico and brought with him plants including sisal he planned to grow commercially.  After his death the property was abandoned, but the sisal thrived and became a source of plants for those, including Germans, who then grew it on plantations in their colonies (Brockway, 1979).

On a brighter note, there is a wonderful exhibit, In Search of Thoreau’s Flowers: An Exploration of Change and Loss, now running at the Harvard Museum of Natural History.  It’s based on the Harvard Herbaria’s collection of Henry David Thoreau specimens.  There are 648 of them and they were digitized five years ago.  Two artists have created an installation that allows viewers to look not only at the specimens themselves, but also artistic renderings of them.  I have only seen the online version of this exhibit, but even that is stunning.  Robin Vuchnich, a new media artist, designed an immersive experience in the gallery’s theatre using the digitized specimens along with soundscapes recorded at Walden Pond where Thoreau wrote his masterpiece Walden. 

In addition, Leah Sobsey, a photographer and artist, created cyanotypes on glass from Thoreau’s specimens.  She used a process similar to Anna Atkins’s in making algae cyanotypes in the 19th century.  As the website notes, Sobsey produced cyanotypes for all the Thoreau specimens, creating “a stunning wallpaper consisting of original cyanotypes and digital imagery that tells a story of the survival and decline of plant specimens.”  This sounds like an exciting way to both experience herbarium specimens and think about a classic in American environmental and natural history literature.  It is interesting to consider what Thoreau would make of all this, to say nothing of how Concord, and Harvard, have changed since his day.  What I find so exciting about this presentation is how not only plants, but herbarium specimens are at its core.  Think of the thousands of visitors, old and young, who will discover herbaria in such a visually striking way.

References

Brockway, L. B. (1979). Science and Colonial Expansion: The Role of the British Royal Botanic Gardens. New York: Academic Press.

Art: Plants in Three Dimensions

Glass Flowers at the Harvard Museum of Natural History – Canada Wild Ginger. Photo by Rhododendrites

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. 

References

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.

Art: Surrealism and Specimens

Untitled Collage (1936), Eileen Agar

I will admit that it’s quite a leap from last week’s post on medieval herbals to surrealism, the subject of this post in my series on botanical art.  However, I think some of the plants in the Sloane 1975 manuscript in the British Library are reminiscent of Max Ernst’s treatment of plants, especially in Human Form (1932).  But that’s not what I am getting at here.  Instead, I want to explore how surrealists, and artists working with at least some surreal elements, have used plant material in their art, in some cases in ways reminiscent of herbarium specimens.  Ernst himself employed a technique that is occasionally seen on specimen sheets or in botanists’ notebooks:  rubbings of leaves or other structures.  Ernst used rubbings particularly of wood, but also of other plant materials.  A series of pencil rubbings called Histoire Naturelle (1925) employs this material in unusual ways, for example, a wood rubbing to create a leaf, or a leaf rubbing a tree.  The mind is thrust into uncertainty in attempting to make sense of them.

My knowledge of surrealism as an art movement is rudimentary, but I gather artists were attempting to use the unconscious as inspiration and to express it in their work.  Their art presents odd juxtapositions as occur in dreams.  I recently came upon a work by Eileen Agar, a British artist who was associated with surrealists in the 1930s, though her art went through other styles over her long career, something that was true of many others who moved in and out of this genre’s influence.  A review of a recent show of her work highlighted a 1936 untitled collage, a favorite type of work for surrealists since it lent itself to putting the unrelated together (Baker, 2021).   Of course, what struck me immediately were all the dried leaves and flowers.  The leaves are mostly from trees, but the flowers appear to be from annuals.  They are pasted on to a watercolor background with a face at the top and mostly obscured body parts.  But that’s not all, there are two pieces of lace, a tiny wooden violin, and two starfish-like forms, as well as a number of button-like discs.  I have to admit that I find a work like this mesmerizing, and the fact that I can’t really understand it makes me turn to feeling rather than thought.  Exploring it is an emotional journey; life is presented here preserved but also with a motion to it.

I’ll stop my lame attempt at art criticism but only to move on to a couple of other artists.  Joseph Beuys is not a favorite of mine.  He is more about ideas than images, and used masses of lard in some of his works—not my favorite medium.  However, Beuys was interested in nature.  He was a German artist who came of age at the end of World War II, so not surprisingly his work often deals with issues of death and destruction in an attempt to make sense of life.  But he did have a hopeful streak and is known for his 7000 Oaks project of planting trees in Kassel, Germany, each accompanied by a four-foot stone column (Tempkin, 1993).  Many of the trees are still alive and celebrated as an early manifestation of the environmental movement and the now burgeoning field of the plant humanities.  But what I want to point out are Beuys’s pressed plants.  One from early in his career, The Image (1946), is essentially a leaf pasted to a piece of paper with a diagram on it.  Another called Herb Robert (1941) is a list of medicinal plants with two small pressed plants attached.  Later he created more pressed plant works, including Let Flowers Speak(1974), with a recent auction estimate of 75,000 to 100,000 euros.  Obviously there are several layers of meaning here, but his persistent connection to the plant world definitely points to the hopeful side of his oeuvre. 

Among Beuys’s students was Anselm Kiefer, one of Germany’s most notable artists today.  He was born in 1945, so a great deal of his work deals with destruction and depicts desolate scenes, but again there is hope along with a lot of plants, pressed and unpressed.  Kiefer applies paint heavily to his canvases, and often embeds dried plants and other materials into the wet paint, then working in more paint to build the surface further.  He also creates collages such as those with ferns that are framed behind glass in his massive installation Secret of the Ferns (2007) that I wrote about earlier.  These definitely have a surrealist feel to them and are mesmerizing, though most of my experience of Kiefer’s work is second-hand from books and videos.  He is not afraid to think big and uses a lot of lead.  He has created what amounts to a herbarium of lead sheets piled up with sculptures of large sunflowers peeking out from the ends (Biro, 2013).  As in many of his pieces, Kiefer is concerned with the destruction of our environment and its preservation, and both are encapsulated in this work.  I would not want to live with such a piece, but I would like to have the opportunity to directly experience its power.

References

Baker, H. (2021). Haul of nature. Apollo, July/August, 92–93.

Biro, M. (2013). Anselm Kiefer. New York: Phaidon.

Bischoff, Ulrich. (1991). Max Ernst 1891-1975: Beyond Painting. Bonn: Taschen.

Tempkin, A., & Rose, B. (1993). Thinking Is Form: The Drawings of Joseph Beuys. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Art: Medieval Herbals

Sloane 1975 manuscript, f31v, British Library

Lately I’ve been indulging my love of botanical art by simply looking at examples of its many manifestations.  With such a massive topic, all I can really do is touch down at a few points on its vast extent.  In this series of posts, I’ve selected four sites, beginning with Medieval herbals.  The conventional view is that there isn’t much to see here:  just repeated copying of rather crude representations that are often difficult to identify.  But as with much else in history, reexamination leads to new viewpoints.  Yes, there are manuscripts like Sloane 1975 at the British Library, a medical text richly embellished with gold leaf and with plants that are extremely stylized.  Still it’s a treasure worth examining to see how they are stylized:  the emphasis is on symmetry with equal numbers of branches or flowers or leaves on each side of a central stem and with elements spread apart so they don’t overlap and are clearly visible.  If the tuber is the portion of the plant that is of medicinal interest then it is often presented as overly large to emphasize its worth.

The text accompanying these striking images is ancient, though hardly a direct copy.  Manuscripts were added to or streamlined and reordered to make them more accessible to new generations of medical practitioners.  Many are in Latin, though names may also be given in Greek, or as in an English herbal from 1070-1100, in Latin and Old English.  This is MS Ashmole 1431 in Oxford University’s Bodleian Library.  It’s a version of an herbal written in the fourth century A.D. by someone named Pseudo-Apuleius.  Since it was one of the few texts on medicinal plants available in Latin, it was often copied.  There is a later manuscript in the British Library Egerton MS 747 that was produced in the late 13th century probably in Salerno or Naples and presents many plants quite realistically.   At that time, southern Italy provided some of the most advanced medical education, and this manuscript reveals the first stirrings of the close observation that would be the hallmark of early modern medicine and botany. 

However, there are much earlier manuscripts that have amazingly naturalistic representations of plants, though these also contain many images of lesser quality.  The best known is the Anicia Juliana Codex created in 512 AD and now in the Austrian National Library, created.  It has marked similarities to two other manuscripts known by their present locations, the Naples Codex from the late 6th or early 7th century in the National Library, Naples and the mid-10th century New York Codex at the Morgan Library.  All three are written in Greek and are based on the first-century work of materia medica by the Greek physician Dioscorides.  It wasn’t available in Latin until the 12th century, but was the basis for a great deal of medieval writings on medicines into the early modern era. 

Much research has been done on these codices, especially on the Juliana, since some see it as the model for the two later works.  Several years ago, researchers at Purdue University created a database for the three herbals, so that their similarities and differences could be studied more easily (Janick et al., 2013).  As they note, each of the three presents about 400 illustrations; of these, 282 are common to all.  The website is a great resource for diving into three of the most notable early herbals either from a botanical or an art historical viewpoint, though I am not sure that these can be separated.  Just studying the differences and similarities between any two images is an exploration of how different artists present what they see, even when one is copying the other. 

A recent analysis of all three manuscripts was published by Joshua Thomas (2019) who emphasizes the sources for the images.  Many of the illustrations are so realistic that they can be identified to species, something not possible with many other manuscript illustrations.  Thomas presents a number of arguments others have made about the relationship among the three works.  First is the archetype theory, that the Vienna codex, as the oldest, was model for the other two.  While there are many species common to all three books, even in these cases, the images are not exact copies.  This has led some to see them as related to a common source that has been lost, definitely a possibility.  However, Thomas questions this view because each presents plants in different formats.  One will take up an entire page with an image, another will pair plants together, and a third will only use half or less of the page and fill the rest with text.  It seems to him that if they were all using the same source, there would be more uniformity.

Thomas then builds a case for the models being from the classical period, several hundred years before the Vienna Codex, because he doesn’t see plant images from the 4th and 5th century with the naturalism found in these manuscripts.  Instead he finds similarities with, for example, the plants depicted in the murals in the Empress Livia’s garden room in Rome and others in Pompeii (Ciarallo, 2001).  This leaves him with the question of how they ended up in later works.  He doesn’t consider the papyrus manuscripts of that time as likely sources since papyrus doesn’t allow for the fine detail seen in the codices.  He posits instead that the models were painted on whitened wooden boards called pinakes that artists were known to use.  These would have been portable, explaining how the images could have traveled.  I’m hardly in a position to judge the likelihood of this hypothesis, but it does suggest how closely these ancient botanical jewels are being examined.

References

Ciarallo, A. (2001). Gardens of Pompeii. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Janick, J., Whipkey, A. L., & Stolarczyk, J. (2013). Synteny of images in three lilustrated Dioscoridean herbals: Juliana Anicia Codex, Codex Neapolitanus, and Morgan 652. Notulae Botanicae Horti Agrobotanici Cluj-Napoca, 41(2), 333–339.

Thomas, J. J. (2019). The iIllustrated Dioskourides codices and the transmission of images during antiquity. The Journal of Roman Studies, 109, 241–273. https://doi.org/10.1017/S007543581900090X

Botany for Amateurs: The Decorative Arts

Leontodon autumnalis, Flora Danica, Tab. MDXXIII, 1816. Art Gallery of Ontario.

If “craft,” which I wrote about in the last post, can have a connotation of not being serious, then “decoration” is even less worthy of serious consideration.  Yet most of us have much more contact with the decorative arts—in our homes, our clothes, and daily encounters—than with “serious” art.  Years ago, I wrote an article called “Jellyfish on the Ceiling, Deer in the Den” (Flannery, 2005).  The title obviously signals that I produced it in my pre-botany days, but there were a lot of plants included.  My argument was that humans have a proclivity for surrounding themselves with living specimens including houseplants and pets, but even more with representations of flora and fauna.  Perhaps ultraminimalist homes are exceptions, but even there, a striking potted tree or orchid might emerge from the white walls and upholstery. 

            Most of us go much further than that, with botanical prints, animal figurines, and in the children’s room, dinosaurs.  My contention was that all this biota manifests what Edward O. Wilson (1984) calls “biophilia,” an innate human attraction to other living things.  He argues that such an adaption would be useful because until recently humans were immersed in the living world and needed to pay attention to it and appreciate it.  Even though many of us live in urban areas, we still feel that pull, and so create indoor lifescapes.  I’m bringing this up because it gives me a chance to mention the current trend, at least in certain circles, to used framed herbarium specimens in interior decoration. 

            During the pandemic I treated myself to a subscription to The World of Interiors, a glossy British magazine that presents homes from the ultramodern to the medieval.  There have been several articles over the past few years in Interiors and other publications with pictures of rooms with series of framed specimens hanging on the walls of living rooms, bedrooms, or even bathrooms.  Most of these sheets seem to be antiques, probably 19th century albums dismembered because they fetched higher prices when framed, otherwise the interior decorators might not know what to do with them.  Most are labeled at least with the plant name, but in some cases with more information.  Much as I believe in biophilia and think of specimens as works of art, I wouldn’t want them in my home.  I depresses me that these representatives of biodiversity have ended up where they will probably never be databased or used to further our knowledge of the natural world.

            But such examples do bolster the biophilia argument, and there is evidence that even representations of nature can improve a person’s mood and outlook (Kellert, 1997).  So why couldn’t a few herbarium specimens brighten a day?  And there are other connections between botany and the decorative arts.  The 18-volume Flora Danica (1761-1783) was lavishly illustrated, and the plates used as source material for the equally lavish dinnerware.  The set was created by the Royal Danish Porcelain Manufactory for the Danish royal family, not surprising since the business was owned by the Danish king (Ackers, 2010).  This is either a botanist’s dream or nightmare:  would food seem palatable with such botanical treasures peeking through the gravy?  Another example is the work of Christopher Dresser, a 19th-century British designer and professor of artistic botany.  He produced a series of articles on botany adapted to the arts, wrote a book on Rudiments of Botany (1859), and created botanical diagrams.   Another case is that of the botanical illustrator in the early days of Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, William Kilburn, who left this work to create wallpaper and fabric designs (Nelson, 2008).  This turned out to be a much more lucrative business.

            Before I end, I have to get back to the jellyfish on the ceiling from my article.  It refers to Ernst Haeckel, famed for his Art Forms in Nature that was such an inspiration to artists and illustrators at the turn of the 20th century.  He was a zoologist who specialized in studying jellyfish.  He did in fact have jellyfish decorations on his ceiling and on tables, lamps, vases, etc.  Lest you think botanists are any less obsessed, the “botanical kitchen” in the Marie-Victorin Herbarium in Montreal is equipped not only with a toaster oven but wallpaper made from scans of specimens from the collection, in a 4 by 4 sheet repeat.  The Oxford Herbarium was once located in its historic botanic garden, which just celebrated its 400th anniversary.  It has been moved to larger quarters, but there is still an “Herbarium Room” with historical displays in the former herbarium at the garden.  The room is papered not with specimens, but the next best thing, prints from Hortus Elthamensis (1732) written by Johann Dillenius, the first botany professor at Oxford University who also created not only the illustrations, but engraved many of the plates as well.  This might be a homage to that great interior decorator Carl Linnaeus, who designed a famous piece of botanical furniture to store his specimens and papered his bedroom with prints from Georg Ehret’s work.  In fact one of the cabinets is now in the print-lined room at his Hammarby farm.  The 18th-century wallpaper has not fared well and needs restoration or conservation work.  However the paper is so fragile, there is difference of opinion on the damage that could be done by any intervention (Cullhed, 2008).  Maintaining a home is never easy.

References

Ackers, G. (2010). The ferns of Flora Danica—Plants and porcelain. Pteridologist, 5, 207–213.

Cullhed, P. (2008). The conservation of iconic objects and Linnaeus’ books and wallpaper. In The Linnaean Legacy (pp. 135–140). London: Linnean Society of London.

Flannery, M. C. (2005). Jellyfish on the ceiling and deer in the den: The biology of interior decoration. Leonardo, 38(3), 239–244. https://doi.org/10.1162/0024094054029056

Kellert, S. (1997). Kinship to Mastery: Biophilia in Human Evolution and Development. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Nelson, E. C. (2008). William Kilburn’s calico patterns, copyright and Curtis’s Botanical Magazine. Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, 25(4), 361–373.

Wilson, E. O. (1984). Biophilia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Botany for Amateurs: Craft

Paper cutout of Passiflora laurifolia by Mary Delany. In the collection of the British Museum

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).

Scherenschnitt of Arum by Johann Christoph Ende in Sonderbares Kräuterbuch. Berlin State Library, Ms. germ. fol. 223

References

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.

Catesby’s Travels

Yellow pitcherplant (Sarracenia flava) and Southern toad (Anaxyrus terrestris) by Mark Catesby, Vol. 2 Illus. 69 in Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands

In the last post, I discussed the University of South Carolina’s Mark Catesby Centre and its work to bring Catesby’s legacy into the 21st century.  Now I want to dig a little more deeply into that legacy and how it developed.  Every discussion of Catesby begins with the disclaimer that not much is known about his life, and to a certain extent this is true.  There is little information about his early years with somewhat more his life after he returned to England.  However, the more historians have studied existing records about him and put these together with what they can glean from others’ correspondence and journals, Catesby has, in a sense, has come more to life.  One expert is the botanist E. Charles Nelson (2018), a member of the Centre’s affiliated faculty, who has delved into what books were in Catesby’s library.  Nelson also researched Catesby’s relationship with his uncle, Nicholas Jekyll who was a gardener and was friendly with John Ray and with Samuel Dale, a supporter of Catesby’s travels.  This is likely where Catesby developed his interest in plants and learned the basics.  However, there is no record of his having any formal education, though he came from a family that was comfortable if not wealthy. 

The next phase of Catesby’s life was his first trip to North America from 1712 to 1719.  He accompanied his sister to get her safely settled with her husband, a physician serving the governor of Virginia at Williamsburg.  It’s assumed Catesby spent much of his time working on his brother-in-law’s farm, but he also developed a friendship with two men who had a serious interest in plants, William Byrd II and John Custis.  Byrd had a large library and a greenhouse, Custis a variety of exotic plants growing in his garden.  Catesby traveled up the James River toward the Appalachian Mountains and also made other trips closer to home.  He gathered seeds and various plant materials, sending them to Dale who was impressed with them and with Catesby’s knowledge (Nelson & Elliott, 2015). 

When Catesby returned to England, Dale put him in touch with other botanists of the day such as William Sherard and Hans Sloane.  They encouraged Catesby to return to North America and more systematically collect specimens, seeds, and seedlings.  They also encouraged his artistic talent and his ability to write vividly on natural history.  These three men, along with 9 others, sponsored his second trip which was focused further south.  Many were members of the Royal Society, and Catesby later presented a report on his travels at an RS meeting.  After he visited with the botanical minded in Charleston, he began to explore the area, particularly north of Charleston where there were several large plantations as well as much wild country.

Catesby had brought supplies for painting watercolors of the organisms he found and also for making collections, particularly of plants, though he did collect shells, skins of birds and other animals, and insects as well.  He wrote of Native Americans he encountered and their uses for plants, especially for medicinal purposes.  He traveled down the coast of Carolina and then inland, perhaps as far as Clemson probably using Native American trails (Brown, 2022).  He also visited Fort Moore, across the river from what is now Augusta, Georgia on three occasions, and explored central Carolina.   Georgia was then considered part of Florida.  Finally, Catesby sailed to the Bahama Islands where he remained for a year before traveling back to England.  This is a hurried travelogue, but I want to get to his artistic work after his return because without that there would probably not be a Catesby Centre.

Catesby presented his sponsors with the fruits of his voyage in terms of plant material and correspondence, but he did not want to relinquish his drawings until he had used them to create the illustrations for the book he was planning.  He quickly discovered that to publish a work on the scale he envisioned would be very costly.  He couldn’t afford to have an expert create etched plates, so he learned from a master of the art Joseph Goupy and made his own, as well as writing the text in both English and French and advertising for subscribers.  He even hand-colored some of the prints in the first volume himself.  This volume was completed in 1731 and the second in 1743.  Each volume had 100 spectacular etchings, and there was an additional 20 in an Appendix to the second volume that was published four years later. 

While working on this opus, Catesby collaborated with nurserymen who were cultivating a number of the plants he brought back.  At times, the Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands reads almost like a catalogue where he extols the virtues of a North American tree or shrub now grown by one of his associates.  After the second volume was published he began work on something of a spin-off, Hortus Europae Americanus, with plates based on portions of the original plates.  Published posthumously, It focused on trees and shrubs and was much closer to a nurserymen’s publication in that it included practical information on growth habits and conditions for the pictured species.  This is a much less spectacular work, but I find It very pleasing to look at, with each plate divided into four sectors picturing four species. 

References

Brown, H. (2022). Catesby in Carolina. South Carolina Wildlife, January/February, 4–11.

Nelson, E. C., & Elliott, D. J. (Eds.). (2015). The Curious Mister Catesby: A Truly Ingenious Naturalist Explores New Worlds. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.

Mark Catesby in South Carolina

The naturalist, author, and artist Mark Catesby landed in Charleston, South Carolina on May 3, 1722 on his second visit to North America.  To celebrate the 300th anniversary, the Mark Catesby Centre at the University of South Carolina, Columbia presented a symposium, Catesby at 300.  The Centre is part of the University Libraries, and its Rare Book Collection has mounted a special exhibition running, Catesby in the Carolinas, which also includes exhibits at the university’s McKissick Museum with its extensive natural history collection; it runs through August.  The University Libraries holds five copies of Catesby’s Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands representing all three editionsSince there were less than 200 copies printed of the first edition and about 100 survive, this is an amazing treasure and well worth showing off.  This fine collection is one reason the rare print collector Herbert Fitzgerald decided to augment it by donating over 120 Catesby prints to the university and also why the independent Catesby Commemorative Trust found a new home there as the Catesby Centre.

David Elliott founded the Trust 20 years ago and was pleased to have it become part of the university so it can continue its already significant achievements in making Mark Catesby’s legacy better known today.  I first learned about its work when the Trust sponsored a six-day tour of Catesby-related sites from Washington, DC to Charleston in 2012.  It was a unique opportunity to travel with a group of participants and presenters that included the botanists James Reveal and Ghillean Prance who spoke of the plants Catesby encountered.  Charlie Jarvis (2007), who wrote the definitive work on Carl Linnaeus’s type specimens, discussed the plants that Carl Linnaeus named based on Catesby specimens and prints.  The two even exchanged letters and met when Linnaeus was in London early in his career.  Stephen Harris presented via video on the Catesby specimens at the Oxford University Herbaria.  They are part of the collections of Charles Dubois and William Sherard who were among those sponsoring his trip.  In return, they received specimens and seeds. 

At the Smithsonian, we saw its copies of Catesby’s books and heard from Leslie Overstreet who has done extensive work on the extant copies, including how they vary across the editions and even within an edition.  One cause of variations is that the volumes were not sold bound, but sent to subscribers in fascicles of 20 prints each along with a page of text for each print.  The copy that is now in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle was purchased by King George III and includes an original Georg Ehret painting.  This was among the interesting information provided by Henrietta McBurney who had been a curator at the Royal Library and had written a book on the 240 original Catesby watercolors also purchased by the George III.  They had not been given much attention over the years until McBurney and others on the staff examined them along with several other important natural history art collections.

Besides tours of a number of historic homes in Richmond, Virginia and Charleston that held original Catesby prints, we also took a boat trip along the Kiawah River in areas that Catesby visited.  This was a wonderful experience because we went through a large nature preserve that is a sanctuary for sea birds.  We saw not only many species, but large populations of them.  It really gave at least some sense of what South Carolina was like when Catesby visited.  I would like to reminisce more about this wonderful tour, but I want to mention other contributions made by the Catesby Commemorative Trust including the publication of the award winning book, The Curious Mister Catesby (Nelson & Elliott, 2015).  It includes chapters based on presentations given during the tour as well as other essays covering everything from Catesby’s biography, to his relationship to the horticulture trade between Britain and the colonies and his activities during the year he spent in the Bahama Islands.  The book was edited by David Elliott and E. Charles Nelson, an Irish botanist, writer, and editor who has been an integral part of the work of the Trust and now of the Catesby Centre.  He and Elliott are putting together a new book that will include a catalog of the Catesby prints donated by Fitzgerald as well as essays on the plants, birds, insects, and fishes pictured in Natural History.  These include those mentioned in Catesby’s introductory essay, “An Account of Carolina and the Bahama Islands,” but not pictured in any of the prints.  Since established within the University Libraries, the Centre has also overseen the digitization of the first edition Catesby as well as the Fitzgerald prints.

I am fortunate to have been invited to be part of the Catesby Centre’s work as affiliate faculty along with Herrick Brown the director of the A.C. Moore Herbarium in the university’s biology department, Christian Cicimurri curator of collections at the McKissick Museum, Rudy Mancke the university’s natural in residence, and Michael Weisenberg associate director of Rare Books and Special Collections in the University Libraries.  The entire list of those contributing to this effort are listed here.  I have learned a great deal from this project, and I’m very grateful to be a part of it.  I consider myself lucky to have landed at the university shortly before the Centre did.  In the following posts, I’ll discuss some of the latest discoveries about Catesby’s life and art, and end with a recap of the symposium held in May. 

References

McBurney, H. (1997). Mark Catesby’s Natural History of America: The Watercolors from the Royal Library Windsor Castle. Houston: Museum of Fine Arts.

Nelson, E. C., & Elliott, D. J. (Eds.). (2015). The Curious Mister Catesby: A Truly Ingenious Naturalist Explores New Worlds. Athens, GA. University of Georgia Press.

Antennae

Vegetal Entanlgements, Antennae Issue 51

To end this series on the work of Giovanni Aloi and others in critical plant studies, I want to cover a lot of ground.  So far, I’ve gravitated toward art and literature, but philosophy is very much a part of this field as well.  This is an area with which I am less familiar, though I have read a few books on the topic that I found interesting, including Matthew Hall’s (2011) Plants as Persons: A Philosophical Botany.  I always enter a piece of writing by a philosopher with a bit of hesitancy:  am I going to be able to understand it?  In this case, I was soon put at ease.  Hall’s argument is clearly laid out and makes sense.  He explores perceptions of plants within different world views.  In the West, plants are seen as passive resources, while in Hindu texts, for example, plants are presented as fully sentient beings.  A multiplicity of views means that there are multiple ways of considering plant being, including as “persons,” which Hall defines as autonomous, perceptive, and intelligent beings, deserving of respect as other-than-human persons (p. 14). 

I should note, that by “intelligent” here, Hall means able to change behavior based on incoming information, something that plants do despite their lack of a central nervous system.  This deficiency is seen by some as precluding intelligence and consequently personhood.  I am not qualified to pass judgment on any of this, however I think raising such questions is important.  Thinking about plants in different ways leads to seeing in different ways and to questioning assumptions and perceptions.  It’s easy to consider plants as inactive, particularly in a herbarium which is essentially a plant morgue; not a lot of singing and dancing going on in the aisles.  However, the plant on a sheet entails so much more than just a set of characteristics to be noted and measured; it represents a “relational” being connected to many other beings, including ourselves, in a myriad of ways.

Still another philosophical perspective on what such relations involve is described by Emanuele Coccia (2019) in The Life of Plants: A Metaphysics of Mixture.  Coccia questions not cultural assumptions as Hall does, but rather looks to the biology of plants to understand how we relate to them at the most basic level, that of breath.  He writes:  “Plants are the breath of all living beings, the world as breath.  In turn, any breath is evidence of the fact that being in the world is, fundamentally, an experience of immersion.  To breathe means to be plunged into a medium that penetrates us in the same way and with the same intensity as we penetrate it” (p. 53).  That is definitely a profound yet fundamental way of thinking about our connections with plants.  While Hall looks at plants as they relate to human culture, Coccia looks at how living things share resources and the space in which they exist.  It is very interesting that the same organisms can generate such different worldviews and makes me think that I might need to investigate philosophy a little further in order to get a better perspective on plants, and life in general. 

I’ll end this ramble into viewpoints on plants that are outside my comfort zone by returning to where I began this series of posts (1,2,3) with Giovanni Aloi who seems to explore so many facets of the plant world.  He is the co-founder and editor of Antennae, a quarterly online journal that is open access.   I mentioned it in an earlier post, but it deserves attention here, because just as Hall and Coccia have expanded my view of the plant world, Antennae has done the same, in very different ways, for the living world in general.  Some Antennae issues such as Number 17 (Why Look at Plants?) and then Numbers 51-53 (Vegetal Entanglements) focus on plants.  These are definitely worth spending some time with.  They are all visually stunning, which is not surprising since Antennae is “The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture.” 

As an art critic and a plant studies expert, Aloi knows where to look for wonderful work by contemporary artists, including a couple of photographers who are exploring issues around seed collections.  But there are also articles on historical works such as Mary Delany’s (Number 51) 18th-century paper cutouts of plants and Gherardo Cibo’s (Number 51) 16th-century botanical illustrations set against landscapes, a novel twist for the time.  There are also articles giving attention to indigenous knowledge of plants and indigenous ways of honoring them.  Even if you don’t read every word of an issue, you will be richly rewarded by the images which are not only visually stunning but thought-provoking.  All issues are free and available in PDF format that is easy to view and to download for future reference.  What more could you ask of publication that, even in issues that are not devoted solely to plants, usually have some fascinating articles on them.  In any case, keep an eye on Giovanni Aloi if you want to expand your view of what plants are all about.

References

Coccia, E. (2019). The Life of Plants: A Metaphysics of Mixture (D. J. Montanari, Trans.). Cambridge: Polity.

Hall, M. (2011). Plants as Persons: A Philosophical Botany. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Critical Plant Studies and Phytogenesis

Purple Aquilegia Anthotype: Painswick Rococo Garden, Gloucestershire, by Nettie Edwards

As I discussed in the first post in this series, I recently discovered a talk hosted by Giovanni Aloi from a series Botanical Speculations that has been going on for some time.  He mentioned that there was an upcoming online symposium, Phytogenesis II, sponsored by Plymouth University in England.  As its title implies, it is the successor to a similar event held last year.  I had attended some of the sessions at the time, but found myself overwhelmed with the stream of metaphors used to describe human relationships with plants, and the emphasis on the stranger attributes of plants.  It seemed to me that people interested in critical plant studies and looking at the cultural implications of plants, gravitate toward species that tend to have seemingly unplantlike characteristics, such as Rafflesia that lacks chlorophyll and is therefore parasitical, carnivorous like the Venus fly trap (Dionaea muscipula),  or extra-large like the corpse flower (Amorphophallus titanum), which has the added “lure” of smelling like rotting flesh.  Orchids also get a lot of attention because their sexual structures can mimic everything from monkey’s faces to animal genitals.  With hundreds of thousands of flowering plants to choose from, not to mention cryptogams, it seems narrow to focus on the bizarre and presents a skewed view of what the plant world is about. 

That being said, I decided to attend Phytogenesis II when I saw that the word “herbarium” was in the title of the first session:  “The Herbarium: Coloniality, Indigenous Knowledge and the Eucalyptus: Challenges for Critical Plant Studies.”  The first speaker was Prudence Gibson of the School of Art and Design at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.  She has received a grant for her project: “Exploring the Cultural Value of Sydney’s Royal Botanic Garden Herbarium Collection Using an Environmental Aesthetic.”  Gibson plans to collaborate with artists and writers along with the herbarium’s botanists in examining the collection in new ways.  She explained one important aspect of her work:  to focus attention on the plant names inscribed on specimen labels.  As with so many collections formed by colonizers, the labels usually do not include the names of the indigenous collectors who so often found the plants, nor the names they used for the species.  Usually just scientific names are recorded and at times the English common names of the colonizers. 

Gibson is arguing for “tri-naming,” as the herbarium standard.  This is hardly a unique situation; herbarium curators around the world are grappling with this issue, and it will require a great deal of work to address.  However, one benefit will be to draw new communities to herbaria, those with indigenous knowledge who can enrich specimen information and also learn more about the plants with which they have many deep connections.  One example of the kinds of links Gibson hopes to forge was described by her colleague Fabri Blacklock, a textile artist and associate professor at UNSW.  She works with natural dyes, including those derived from native eucalyptus species.  She discussed her projects in creating fabric artworks with fellow indigenous artists while also learning about the long history of eucalyptus use in Australia, a history that had been masked until recently. 

The next several Phytogenesis II presentations dealt with photography, such as William Arnold’s work collecting “wild” apple varieties in Britain from trees that seemingly have sprung up from seeds strewn here and there, definitely never part of an orchard.  This is a nice example of looking more closely at parts of the plant world that are overlooked, yet have interesting connections to everything from plant genetics to Johnny Appleseed.  The photographer Nettie Edwards discussed her long-term project on the anthotype, a photographic process using plant pigments to make light-sensitive prints.  It was developed in the 19th century when so many experiments were done employing light and chemicals in different ways to create images.  Mary Somerville originated the technique, but couldn’t get her work published, so John Herschel, the astronomer and photography pioneer, presented it to the Royal Society in her name, but the technique came to be more connected with him than Somerville. 

Edwards has experimented extensively with the process, using a variety of light-sensitive plant pigments and found that they create soft rather than crisp images.  Because natural pigments are used, it’s not surprising that they fade over time, ultimately disappearing.  That’s okay with Edwards.  She sees this slow disappearance as a metaphor for the disappearance of nature from our lives and of species from the biosphere.  Her work tells a story of the beauty of plants and of loss.  It was clear from her presentation that she had done a great deal of research on plant pigments, on how to prepare them for use in her photographic processes, and how best to use them to represent aspects of plant form.  I found this project particularly fascinating.  To me, it represented critical plant studies in a way that was both accessible and deeply meaningful. 

Edwards prepared me for Giovanni Aloi’s keynote at the end of the symposium.  I was ready for a deeper dive into the field of critical plant studies that had become less foreign to me, and definitely worth exploring.  There are so many people in literature, the arts, history, and philosophy engaged with plants it seems that those of us who are interested in the scientific side of plants should pay some attention to how others view these organisms that we find so fascinating.