At A.C. Moore Herbarium: Materiality of Specimens

Celtis laevigata var. laevigata collected by Henry Ravenel along the Santee Canal in April. Henry William Ravenel Collection at A.C. Moore Herbarium, University of South Carolina, Columbia

During the pandemic, I became interested in digital medieval manuscripts after reading a blog post by a researcher studying the digitization of manuscripts at Cambridge University and being unable to access the manuscripts themselves (Haaren, 2020).  I began comparing this digitization process to that of herbarium specimens.  “Materiality” is a term much used in the manuscript world for the look and feel of parchment or paper and the way documents are damaged, annotated, amended over time.  It struck me that such issues also pertain to herbarium specimens, but it’s not something that’s often a matter of focus.  Botanists are interested in the information on sheets:  what the plant itself can tell them and what else they can learn from the label, determination slips, and other notations. 

What I want to argue here is that materiality can have at least a subliminal effect on how specimens are viewed and handled.  I want to use as a study case a number of specimens from the herbarium I’ve been highlighting in this series of posts (1,2,3), that of the A.C. Moore Herbarium (USCH) at the University of South Carolina, Columbia.  As I mentioned earlier, it holds the collection of the 19th-century botanist and planter Henry William Ravenel (1817-1887).  Ravenel was born into a family of planters in South Carolina’s low country relatively near the coast.  In the 1840s, he moved to the southwest part of the state, to the town of Aiken, and bought a plantation there.  Of course, the American Civil War is the elephant in this room.  Before then, he was successful in large part because he owned 80 slaves who worked his land, giving him time to devote to plants and fungi.  By 1860, he had published five volumes of fungal exsiccati and had a wide correspondence with the likes of Asa Gray, George Engelmann, and Edward Tuckerman.

Convinced of the confederate cause, Ravenel sunk all his money into war bonds and was thus left in dire financial straits after the war, with no slaves to farm his land and no one willing to buy it at anywhere near its previous value.  He turned to botany, no longer as just a beloved avocation but as a source of income.  His journals and letters, which have all been transcribed and are available online and cross-referenced with his specimens, record his efforts.  After the war, he was able to resume correspondence with his former botanical colleagues.  He wrote to them asking for advice:  would there be an interest in southern specimens (not really in the post-war era), was there a market for the volumes of his exsiccati (Tuckerman was able to sell some of them and also bought some of his books), what about starting a nursery (nurseryman Thomas Meehan in Philadelphia sent him stock and gave him $50 in start-up money that didn’t need to be repaid). 

Ravenel did cobble together a livelihood and a botanical support group.  He was sent by the federal government to collect plants in Texas in 1869, prepared large cuttings of southern trees for Charles Sprague Sargent in Massachusetts, and traded specimens with the likes of Alvan Chapman in Florida, Stephen Olney in Rhode Island Delaware, and Moses Curtis in the Appalachian regions of the Carolinas (Haygood, 1987).  I can’t go into any more of his background, but you can learn about him on the Plants and Planter website.  Now I want to get to the materiality of Ravenel’s specimens by looking at a couple of them.  As was common in the 19th century, most were mounted on thin paper, now discolored.  After Ravenel’s death, a cousin bought the flowering plant collection from his widow and contributed it to Converse College, in Spartanburg, SC (now Converse University).  The college transferred the collection to USCH in 2004, when its conservation was begun.

There are a variety of sheets in any one folder.  In some cases, the original sheets are themselves mounted on heavier sheets (see image in earlier post); in many cases the original paper is cut around the plant, creating a collage that includes the original label and later determinations, some made in the 1930s when the collection was obviously given attention.  The grasses, for example, were sent for annotation to Mary Agnes Chase at the US Department of Agriculture.  There are also specimens that were apparently easier to remove from damaged mounts and pasted to new sheets.  The original labels are also included, and their darkened paper stands out against the white background (see above).

These remounted specimens, which make up most of the Ravenel collection, are what got me thinking about the materiality of the Ravenel collection.  They look so different from the few older sheets that are extant.  All the plants are from the same period, yet the ones on new sheets look so much fresher.  I think there is also a tendency to handle them with less reverence because the paper is not fragile, there is little reminder of their age.  This got me thinking about the folders in the main collections.  Most of the specimens are from the 20th century, with a good number from the 21st.  However, the specimens from the 1930s and 1940s are often on thin and yellowed paper.  Going through a folder, I think there is a subconscious assessment made in handling each sheet:  delicate, old and fragile; recent, tough and vibrant; or somewhere in between.  These are obviously aesthetic assessments, but they are also practical ones in terms of how the sheets are handled.  They may not require the care in handling a medieval manuscript does—or maybe they do.  Plant material is more fragile than the paper on which it is mounted and paper is more fragile than parchment.  Materiality does matter.

Note: I am very grateful to John Nelson and Herrick Brown for their very helpful commentaries and corrections on this series of posts.

References

Haaren, S. van. (2020, May 25). Physical distancing from manuscripts and the presence of the digital facsimile. Cambridge Medieval Graduate Students. https://camedievalists.wordpress.com/2020/05/25/physical-distancing-from-manuscripts-and-the-presence-of-the-digital-facsimile/

Haygood, T. M. (1987). Henry William Ravenel, 1814-1887: South Carolina Scientist in the Civil War Era. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.

At A.C. Moore Herbarium: Aesthetics

Limnobium spongia collected by Alvan Chapman in Apalachicola, FL. Henry William Ravenel Collection at A.C. Moore Herbarium, University of South Carolina, Columbia

In this series of posts, I’m focusing on the holdings of the A.C. Moore Herbarium (USCH) at the University of South Carolina.  Here I want to discuss the beauty I come upon among the specimens.  Aesthetically pleasing plants are replete in any herbarium, but since almost all are hidden away most of the time, this beauty goes unappreciated, as does art in the vast warehouses of museums like the Met and the Louvre.  The great thing about volunteering in an herbarium is that I get an opportunity to come upon gorgeous specimens on a regular basis.  Recently, I was hunting for something in the mounting room and saw a Passiflora sheet collected by John Nelson, curator emeritus.  Now Nelson did get help from the plant here; the delicacy of its flower is hard to beat.  Carl Linnaeus also had a lovely example that is now the lectotype for the species Passiflora caerulea

The herbarium holds the specimens of Henry William Ravenel (1814-1887) a nineteenth-century South Carolina botanist.  This collection of slightly more than 6000 specimens was entrusted to the care of the herbarium by Converse College (now University) in Spartanburg, SC.   The college had received the plants from Ravenel’s cousin who had bought them from his widow (Haygood, 1987).  Most of the specimens have been remounted, but in some cases the plants couldn’t be easily removed from the original mount, so the specimen and its paper were attached to a new sheet.  In every case, all labels, notes, and determinations were also remounted.  A specimen I find particularly attractive is a American frogbit Limnobium spongia (HWR-00048010) collected by Alvan Wentworth Chapman in Apalachicola, Florida (see above).  The combination of the form of the leaves and bending of the stems with the texture of the paper makes is so appealing.  The subtlety of the colors of the plant and that of the paper is also attractive. 

In general, the Ravenel specimens are treasures because they not only give evidence of what was growing in the 19th century in South Carolina and other parts of the South, as well as more broadly, since Ravenel exchanged specimens with many botanists.  There are also some notes with interesting information on locale or habitat.  Ravenel’s journals and correspondence have been digitized and transcribed.  They are available on the Plants and Planter website along with all his specimens and even maps, so it is easy to search for information on particular collectors or collection events.  Obviously the University of South Carolina appreciates the collection and has worked with other institutions to maximize its availability to both botanists and historians.

But even for recent collections of species that aren’t that photogenic, an expert mounter can make something wonderful from it.  Take another Nelson specimen, this one of southern bog clubmoss Lycopodiella appressum (USCH0073992, see below).  There are any number of aesthetic theories and definitions of what makes something beautiful.  Among the qualities often mentioned elegance as one, and the Passiflora fits the bill there.  Another is symmetry, and with Lycopodiella the mounter has taken this aesthetic quality and created something eye-catching from rather mundane material.  But there’s more than aesthetics involved in this sheet, there is also a good use of space, to make sure all parts of both plants are displayed.  Some students of beauty think that too much symmetry can be boring, and that an interplay of symmetry and asymmetry is more pleasing as is apparent here.  For this specimen the obvious symmetry is enlivened by the asymmetry of the crossed branches. 

Lycopodiella appressum collected by John Nelson at the headwaters of Sandy Run, SC on June 23, 1989. A.C. Moore Herbarium, University of South Carolina, Columbia

As with any artwork, it takes time to appreciate all this sheet has to offer, and usually botanists tend to push aesthetics aside and focus on the information in a beautifully mounted plant.  This makes perfect sense, specimens are first and foremost scientific objects stored for research and educational purposes.  However, it doesn’t hurt to spend a moment from time to time just to soak in the beauty, because, as I have argued before (see earlier post), aesthetics is an intrinsic part of botanical inquiry.  In the last post, I discussed the difficulties of collecting, but put less emphasis on the thrills, which is rarely mentioned on labels.  John Nelson has described to me the moment when he discovered a new species of hedge-nettle Stachys caroliniana:  it was a holiday weekend, he was at the beach with his family, and he decided to do a little botanizing.  And there it was.  Needless to say none of this made it into the article he wrote with Douglas Rayner (2014) describing the species.  Elation simply is not part of scientific prose, explaining why scientists are considered a rather stuffy lot.  John Nelson would not be described as stuffy.  It is alleged that for many years he dressed as the masked botanical superhero Plantman for various occasions, but he denies any such involvement, adding that since Plantman is real, no one needs dress up like him. 

Nelson will admit to bringing a “Vivat Linnaeus” banner with him when he leads field trips, either for his students or other groups.  He also began the tradition which continues under the present curator, Herrick Brown (also a banner wielder), of saying “Vivat” whenever entering one of the rabbit warren of rooms that make up the herbarium.  Anyone in the room knows to answer “Linnaeus.”  This is more than just a quaint tribute to the father of modern botany, it also has a practical purpose.  The rooms are filled with cabinets, that it’s good to know where a fellow human may be lurking and not come upon them unannounced and scaring both parties.  Such customs makes the A.C. Moore Herbarium a happy, if crowded, space for doing and enjoying botany, as is testified to by the number of volunteers and students who work there, and often return for a visit long after they’ve moved on. 

Note: I am very grateful to John Nelson and Herrick Brown for their very helpful commentaries and corrections on this series of posts.

References

Haygood, T. M. (1987). Henry William Ravenel, 1814-1887: South Carolina Scientist in the Civil War Era. Birmingham: University of Alabama Press.

Nelson, J. B., & Rayner, D. A. (2014). A new hedge-nettle (Stachys: Lamiaceae) from South Carolina, USA. Journal of the Botanical Research Institute of Texas, 8(2), 431–440.

Discussing the Plant Humanities: Colonization

Caesalpinia pulcherrima, Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, v.25-26 (1807)

A term that has become better known in the last few years is “decolonization” including in terms of investigating the untold stories of colonization around the world, including how natural history collections were acquired.  However, these “untold” stories have in fact been told for decades, though there are more and more studies now being published (Osseo-Asare, 2014; Murphy, 2020).  At the recent Plant Humanities Conference at Dumbarton Oaks Museum and Library, there were presentations by two historians who have been active in this field for some time.  Londa Schiebinger from Stanford University is the author of Plants and Empire: Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World(2004) and Secret Cures of Slaves: People, Plants, and Medicine in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World (2017).  She spoke on a South American plant called the peacock flower, Caesalpinia pulcherrima, which became known in Europe as a garden plant because of its attractive blooms.  The naturalist and artist Maria Merian wrote about it in her book on the plants and insects of Surinam after her trip there.  She included information on its use by enslaved and indigenous women as an abortifacient.  It was a way for women to exert some control over their lives spent working on plantations.  They could not free themselves but they could try to prevent having children who would be doomed to the same fate. 

The colonial doctors who practiced in Surinam, also knew of these medicinal effects and in fact did research on them.  What Schiebinger emphasized was that despite the knowledge they acquired, they did not communicate it in their home countries.  Schiebinger brought up the sociological term agnotology:  the study of deliberate, culturally induced ignorance.  Inhibiting fertility was not considered a subject to discuss in polite society and also, doctors did not want to discourage population growth among the educated classes at home.  In all the discussion about transfer of knowledge, this is an interesting topic that doesn’t usually come up.

Another topic that’s gaining attention is the agency of indigenous and enslaved people in the face of colonial power.  The use of peacock flower is one example and another was discussed by Judith Carney of the University of California, Los Angeles.  She’s the author of In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa’s Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World (2009), a book that gave me a new perspective on the international movement of plants.  While the emphasis has been on the transfer of species from around the world to Europe, Carney highlighted how African plants were transported to the Western hemisphere via the slave trade.  Much of the evidence for this is circumstantial.  African species like the yam Dioscorea rotundata were grown in the American colonies from almost the beginnings of the slave trade.  Some seeds might have been brought by the traders to grow food for the enslaved people, who might themselves have smuggled some seeds.  At the same time, traders brought seeds of American crops to Africa. 

As the plantation culture developed it became more organized, and many enslaved persons were given small plots of land to grow their own food.  This alternative to the plantation farming system was encouraged by some planters as a way to lessen their need to supply slaves with food.  These plots were much more diverse and when successful could provide surplus fruits and vegetables for sale, giving the growers a small amount of profit to use as they wished.  This form of control over their lives allowed both the enslaved and former slaves to attempt to create decent lives under challenging conditions. 

The story of oppressed groups struggling to survive is repeated over and over again in colonial contexts.  It is hardly news, but I don’t think it can be reiterated too often because everyone living today is experiencing its consequences.  We need to be aware of it in order to be impelled to repair as far as possible the damage it has done.  Another presentation at the conference, “The Visible Hand: Coconuts, Capital, and Racial Colonialism,” discussed oil seed production in Mexico.  Jayson Porter, an environmental historian and postdoctoral fellow at Brown University, reported on his research on a number of oil seeds (Porter, 2021).  This is a massive topic because the world seems to have an insatiable thirst for plant oils, not only for cooking but for soap and many other products. 

The demand has led to the creation of large plantations with, again, the wholesale movement of species.  The area Porter discusses is the Mexican state of Guerrero on the Pacific coast.  It’s climate is ideal for oil seed production, not only of palm oil, but cannabis, sesame, and other species.  Coconut palms are native to Southeast Asia, cannabis to Central and South Asia, and cultivated sesame to India.  They were all brought to Mexico because they could thrive there on a large scale.  Such plantations inevitably required vast amounts of labor, first to clear the land then to plant and harvest crops.  It is this labor that interests Porter, in part because he has family roots in Mexico.  He described his archival work in Mexican institutions and what information he could find, and what he couldn’t—the perpetual problem for historians, with both sides of the coin telling a lot about what of the past was considered worth recording and keeping.  He also linked his research to environmental issues of the present-day, the heritage of plantation culture.

References

Carney, J. A., & Rosomoff, R. N. (2009). In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa’s Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Murphy, K. S. (2020). James Petiver’s ‘Kind Friends’ and ‘Curious Persons’ in the Atlantic World: Commerce, colonialism and collecting. Notes and Records: The Royal Society Journal of the History of Science, 74(2), 259–274. https://doi.org/10.1098/rsnr.2019.0011

Osseo-Asare, A. D. (2014). Bitter Roots: The Search for Healing Plants in Africa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Porter, J. M. (2021). This May Contain Coconut Oil. NACLA Report on the Americas, 53(3), 226–232. https://doi.org/10.1080/10714839.2021.1961499

Schiebinger, L. (2004). Plants and empire: Colonial bioprospecting in the Atlantic World. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Schiebinger, L. (2017). Secret Cures of Slaves: People, Plants, and Medicine in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Discussing the Plant Humanities: Collections

Specimens of Argyroxiphium caliginis with Otto Degener collection number 2557, the same as the one Shih displayed with Wiebke’s name crossed out. In the specimen on the left from KHD, only Degener’s name appears; on the right from US, both names appear.

Felix Driver of Royal Holloway University of London was the first speaker at the Plant Humanities Conference at Dumbarton Oaks, which is the focus of this series of posts.  He was one of the authors of a recent report mapping out future plans for the plant humanities in Britain, making him a good choice for the leadoff role.  He was also the principle investigator for a study called the Mobile Museum on how the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew distributed items from its Economic Botany Collection to schools and museums throughout the country, while still maintaining the core collection at Kew (Driver, Nesbitt & Cornish, 2021).  The height of the distribution was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  It was a way to provide hands-on exhibit and spread the word not only about the usefulness of a large variety of plants, but also the ability of the British Empire to develop and utilize plant products.

The economic botany collection still exists at Kew under the care of Mark Nesbitt, another contributor to the Mobile Museum project.  With over 100,000 items, the collection is growing, though most items are no longer exhibited as they were when Kew had four buildings with economic botany exhibits in the early 20th century (Nesbitt & Cornish, 2016).  Now the collection is used for research that often involves what Driver terms “co-producing knowledge with nonacademic partners.”  This includes collaborations with Pacific barkcloth makers and North Brazilian Amazonia indigenous peoples.  Driver ended his presentation with a photo of one item in the collection, a glass lime juice bottle.  He chose this because his grandfather had been born on a lime plantation in Monserrat, with lime juice shipped in barrels from there to bottling plants in England.  The bottle is a small symbol of the British colonial apparatus.

The next day Ashanti Shih, who teaches history at Vassar College, presented on her research in the collections of Hawaii’s Bishop Museum.  She was studying the career of the German botanist Otto Degener who worked in Hawaii for thirty years.  She focused on his interactions with Asian and indigenous people whom he employed.  One of the latter was Henry Wiebke, a native Hawaiian of the Kanaka Maoli people.  Wiebke was studying medicine, and Degener hired him because he had knowledge of native plants, their indigenous names, habitats, and uses.   The pair planned to write two books, one a popular guide to the flora of the Hawaiian National Park, the second a comprehensive flora of the Hawaiian Islands.  After working together as colleagues and friends for six years, their relationship frayed, at least in part over Wiebke’s decision to defer his medical training in order to work to support his family.  He did collaborate for some time with Degener after this, but eventually they parted ways.

When Degener did publish the books, they were without mention of Wiebke (Degener, 1945; 1932-1969), but the erasure of his contribution went beyond that.  Shih showed a specimen of the iconic silver sword, Argyroxiphium caliginis, collected by both men.  Degener’s name is printed on the label with the typed addition of “and Henry Wiebke.”  But Degener later crossed out the latter, as he did on a number of sheets.  This was a small record of petulance preserved in a herbarium where few would see it, until the age of digitization when the principles were long gone.  Shih related the story with more nuance, but the message was clear that here was one of many untold cases of appropriation of indigenous knowledge without proper, or any, attribution.

The next day the conference provided a very different aspect of indigenous knowledge and in this case, its relationship to art.  The presentation was by the artist Temitayo Ogunbiyi, a Jamaican-American from New York who has lived in Lagos, Nigeria since 2011.  She is interested in the culture of the Yoruba people of Nigeria and found a 1995 book by Pierre Verger, The Uses of Plants in Yoruba Society, with Latin and vernacular plant names.  It also has poetry that Ogunbiyi uses for inspiration for her art which often includes plant forms.  Several years ago, Ogunbiyi was an artist-in-residence at the Smithsonian, and as she delved into collections she became fascinated by the herbarium.  There she asked a very basic question:  why are herbarium sheets always 11.5 by 16.5 inches?  She couldn’t get a good answer, and that just added to her interest in the sheets.  She now does her drawings on herbarium paper, which she sees as “pivotal to my practice.”  She showed several of her works from a recent exhibit in the Berlin Biennale.  They often combine plant forms with African hairstyles in intriguing ways.  She noted that in southwest Nigeria, hairstyles have meaning, and that the head is the foundation of the Yoruba religious practice Ifá.

It’s this thoughtful interweaving of indigenous practice, plants, and art that makes Ogunbiyi’s art so fascinating to me.  She has journeyed back to the continent from which her ancestors were transported centuries ago, and she uses that cultural heritage along with what amounts to a colonial artifact, the herbarium sheet, as a vehicle for exploring it.  She sees her drawings as a form of plant portraiture and the presence of human forms reveals the connections between the two worlds present in Yoruba traditions.  To me, her work and her presentation suggest the power of the plant humanities to open up new worlds for all of us.

References

Degener, O. (1932). Flora Hawaiiensis: The New Illustrated Flora of the Hawaiian Islands (Vol. 1–7). Honolulu.

Degener, O. (1945). Ferns and Flowering Plants of Hawaii National Park. Ann Arbor, MI: Edward Brothers.

Driver, F., Nesbitt, M., & Cornish, C. (Eds.). (2021). Mobile Museums: Collections in Circulation. London: UCL Press.

Nesbitt, M., & Cornish, C. (2016). Seeds of industry and empire: Economic botany collections between nature and culture. Journal of Museum Ethnography, 29, 53–70. https://www.jstor.org/stable/43915938

Verger, P. (1995). Ewé: The Use of Plants in Yoruba Society. São Paolo: Odebrecht.

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.