Art and the Herbarium: Botanical Illustrations

1 Rauh witch hazel

Watercolor of witch hazel seed pods by Dr. Dick Rauh, courtesy of the artist

Over three years ago, I began this blog with a series of posts on the relationship between art and herbaria (1,2,3,4).  This is such a rich subject that I want to return to it here and explore areas that I hadn’t discussed previously.  One topic is probably the most obvious and that’s botanical illustration.  Defined narrowly, this is art in the service of botany, documenting plants as accurately as possible either in pen-and-ink drawings or in watercolor.  These artistic traditions extend back at least to the mid-16th century, though there are accurate renditions of plants much older than that, for example in the sixth-century Juliana Anicia Codex, named for the Empress of the Holy Roman Empire, and the Carrara Herbal produced in Italy at the end of the 14th century.  The Linnaean era brought an informal codification of what a botanical illustration should include:  details of flower structure sometimes with dissections and enlargements as auxiliary to the main image, fruit might also be pictured (Nickelsen, 2006).  What didn’t change was the tradition of presenting a single species against a blank background, though in print, several individual species might be pictured on the same page to save space.

While some thought that photography would replace illustration in botanical publications, that substitution is hardly complete.  There is still a place for illustration in part because, as the zoological artist Jonathan Kingdon has noted:  “Contemporary research on the human brain shows that it does NOT process images as a neutral camera does.  The brain finds edges and builds constructions that are at least partially based on previous experience—possibly including past contacts with artifacts such as ‘drawings’ as well as previous knowledge of natural objects” (Kingdon, 2011, p. 137).  From this he concludes that:  “If the brain is unlike a camera in actively seeking outlines, there is a strong implication that ‘outline drawings’ can represent, in themselves, artifacts that may correspond more closely with what the brain seeks than the charts of light-fall that photographs represent” (p. 139).

Today, most illustrations are in pen and ink because watercolors are much more expensive to produce and publish.  However, in the late 20th and into the 21st century there has been a renaissance in botanical painting fueled by several factors.  Among these was the development of exhibitions and prizes.  The International Exhibition of Botanical Art & Illustration has been sponsored by at the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation in Pittsburgh since 1964.  This is a juried show with artists from many nations represented and is now usually held every two years.  The Royal Horticultural Society in London mounts a yearly Botanical Art Show and awards prizes in several categories.  I am proud to say that I’ve taken a number of classes with an artist who has been in the Hunt Show and also won RHS prizes.  Dick Rauh has taught for many years in the botanical illustration certificate program at New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) (see image above).  Such programs have done a lot to spur interest in botanical art and have produced many exceptional artists.  The best way to get a sense of the field is to look at the website of the American Society of Botanical Artists (ASBA), and at their journal, The Botanical Artist, which is full of wonderful articles about the field.

If there is one name that is synonymous with botanical art in the 21st century, it is that of Shirley Sherwood, who is not an artist but a generous patron of the field.  I first learned of her through her books on botanical art that feature pieces from her collection as well as other works (Sherwood, 1996, 2001, 2005).  These are fascinating to read, and her artistic taste is superb.  Sherwood has funded a gallery in her name at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew where contemporary botanical art as well as historical collections are exhibited.  Her husband James Sherwood, a well-known businessman, supports her interest in botany, and it’s a credit to them both that botanical art—and more broadly interest in plants—have flourished thanks to them.

Three other trends in botanical art worth noting include the focus many botanical artists have on picturing endangered species.  There have been several exhibits with this theme in botanical gardens in different countries, including one at NYBG sponsored by the ASBA.  Also, artists have been invited to participate in a number of florilegia projects.  Perhaps the best known was sponsored by Britain’s Prince Charles and focused on plants grown at his Highgrove estate.  His foundation also supported the publication of The Transylvania Florilegium picturing Romanian plants.  The Brooklyn Botanic Garden is continuing to sponsor its on-going project, a florilegium of plants in the garden.

The final trend I want to mention is the broadening of subject matter for botanical art.  Besides what would be considered traditional subjects and formats, some artists have been daring in taking on subjects such as dying and decaying foliage.  This may not seem particularly interesting, yet some of these pieces are remarkable, such as the work of Jessica Shepherd.  Not only are they beautiful, but they focus attention on a portion of the plant life cycle that we often neglect.  A decaying leaf with its myriad colors and lacy structure is a wonder that we usually just rake up and throw in the compost pile.  Also, more botanical artists are taking on ecology by presenting plants in context, as they grow in nature.  Margaret Mee, the British artist known for her works on the Brazilian flora, was a master of this genre but many others use this approach such as Jenny Hyde-Johnson of South Africa.  In other words, there are more and more wonderful things to look at in the botanical art world.

References

Kingdon, J. (2011). In the eye of the beholder. In M. R. Canfield (Ed.), Field Notes on Science and Nature (pp. 129–160). Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

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

Sherwood, S. (1996). Contemporary Botanical Artists. New York: Cross River Press.

Sherwood, S. (2001). A Passion for Plants: Contemporary Botanical Masterworks. London, UK: Cassell.

Sherwood, S. (2005). A New Flowering: 1000 Years of Botanical Art. Oxford, UK: Ashmolean.

Orchids beyond Oakes Ames

Watercolor of Phalaenopsis grandiflora by John Day, in the Art Archives of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

As I’ve investigated Oakes Ames’s passion for orchids in writing the last three posts (1,2,3), I’ve become more interested in these plants myself.  Interested, but not obsessed, which may be the result of a gender bias.  In several items I’ve read, the male-centeredness of orchid fascination is noted.  In The Orchid Thief (1998) Susan Orlean writes that in 19th-century Britain  “the breeders, the botanists, the hunters, and the collectors, were all men.  Victorian women were forbidden from owning orchids because the shapes of the flowers were considered too sexually suggestive for their shy constitutions” (p. 75).  Orlean notes, however, that Queen Victoria herself was an orchid fancier; yet, male bias in the field seems to extend to the present day.  When Jon Dunn (2018) was developing his plan to see all the native orchids of Britain in one year, a female friend said she would be interested to find out how many women he encountered on this pilgrimage.  The answer was not many.

This masculine turn seems to extend to the plant’s very name, which is derived from the Greek word for testicle:  some species have twin tubers that resemble a pair of testes.  Orchid flowers can also be erotically suggestive, though more reminiscent of female rather than male genitalia.  But with over 50,000 orchid species, the flowers are suggestive of many things: monkey faces, insect rear ends, and bird beaks.  They also have a broad range of cultural connotations as discussed in two recent books.  Monsters under Glass (Desmarais, 2018) deals with hothouse flowers, so orchids are well represented.  This is despite the fact that in the mid-19th century, Joseph Paxton upended orchid horticulture when he argued that attempting to grow orchids in a hot, humid environment was fatal to these plants.  Most tropical orchids were epiphytes the grew up on tree limbs where the air was fresher, and also many of them were from mountainous areas.  What they needed was drier and less torrid conditions.  This did the trick.  Increased viability led to a surge in orchid enthusiasm in the latter part of the 19th century.  Still, orchids remained a symbol of the tropics, and of dark, rather forbidding jungles, as Jim Endersby (2016) discusses in his cultural history of orchids.

While Desmarais focuses on the literary, Endersby is more expansive and describes everything from the first image of a New World orchid, Vanilla planifolia, to Raymond Chandler’s (1939) mystery novel, the Big Sleep, that features a sinister orchid fanatic.  Endersby also brings up another notable piece of orchid trivia, James Bateman’s The Orchidaceae of Mexico and Guatemala that measured 30 by 22 inches and weighed 39 pounds, the largest botanical book with lithographic plates ever produced.  Many of the illustrations were created from watercolors by Sarah Drake, who was also a long-time artist for another orchid expert, John Lindley.

My favorite orchid painter is John Day, a businessman who eventually retired with enough money to dedicate himself to orchids, growing and breeding many himself.  Producing hybrids was a serious interest among many orchid breeders and remains so to the present day (Orlean, 1998).  They anxiously await the results of their crosses to see what forms and colors appear.  They have to be patient because it usually takes seven years or more for an orchid to grow from seed to flowering.  What makes Day interesting to me is that he produced 53 scrapbooks with 2800 pages of watercolor sketches.  He even got permission from Joseph Hooker to visit greenhouses at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew outside of visitor hours so he could paint undisturbed.  Kew now owns his drawings, which have been on display in one of their galleries (see image above), and there is also a book with many examples of his work (Cribbs & Tibbs, 2004).  I love to leaf through it because the sketches contain notes on the orchids’ characteristics and radiate a passion in the process of being fulfilled.  However, Day must not have considered his art satisfactory because he hired Cornelius Durham, a miniaturist, to paint 300 watercolors of his plants.

In a single post there is no way to do orchids justice.  They have such fascinating properties from luring pollinators by mimicking insect forms to usually having pedicels that twist their zygomorphic flowers in place, with the labellum or lip underneath the other petals.  Then there is the diversity of their habitats; some even live underground, have no chlorophyll, and derive nourishment from the roots of other plants or from fungi (Bernhardt, 1989).  The topic of the relationships between fungi and orchids is wide-ranging; orchids’ miniscule seeds can only flourish with fungal assistance, while other orchids parasitize fungi.  There is almost no subject in plant biology that doesn’t include fascinating information about at least a few orchids.  A recently described Brazilian species has flowers that are less than a millimeter  wide.  And don’t forget that even Charles Darwin wasn’t immune to their charms.  He was yet another 19th-century Victorian man who grew them, experimented with them, and wrote about them.

I’ll end with an orchid expert whose name comes up in many accounts of orchids, including Oakes Ames’s, and that’s Heinrich Reichenbach, one of the most noted orchid taxonomists of the 19th century, with John Day among others sending him plants to identify.  Reichenbach died in 1889, and his will stipulated that his herbarium be closed for 25 years, and only then could it be consulted.  Taxonomists were aghast at this prohibition, an apparent slap at Robert Allen Rolfe, a Kew botanist whom Reichenbach loathed.  In a letter to Blanche while he was on a trip to Europe with his assistants to visit other collections, Oakes Ames wrote of their amusing themselves with an idle discussion about breaking into the Reichenbach herbarium in Vienna.  Needless to say, they didn’t follow through, but Oakes was waiting at the door of the herbarium on the morning the collection finally opened for viewing (Garay, 2007).

References

Bernhardt, P. (1989). Wily Violets and Underground Orchids. New York: William Morrow.

Chandler, R. (1939). The Big Sleep. New York: Macmillan.

Cribb, P., & Tibbs, M. (2004). A Very Victorian Passion: The Orchid Paintings of John Day 1863-1888. London, UK: Thames and Hudson.

Desmarais, J. (2018). Monsters under Glass: A Cultural History of Hothouses Flowers from 1850 to the Present. London, UK: Reaktion.

Endersby, J. (2016). Orchid: A Cultural History. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Garay, L. (2007). The orchid herbarium of Oakes Ames. In Orchids at Christmas (pp. 41–50). Cambridge, MA: Botanical Museum of Harvard University.

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

Libraries and Botany: New York, New York

4 Diospyros virginiana

Specimen of Diopyros virginiana collected from the site of the Elgin Botanic Garden in 1829, New York Botanical Garden Steere Herbarium

Since the joint CBHL/EBHL meeting (see earlier post) was held in New York, it’s not surprising that there were several presentations related to the metropolis.  It seems fitting to end this series of posts with a review of them.  After a welcome from Susan Fraser, director of NYBG’s Mertz Library, the first major speaker of the conference was Eric Sanderson of the Wildlife Conservation Society, headquartered across the street from the New York Botanical Garden, at the Bronx Zoo.  For many years Sanderson has had a leading role in research on what New York was like before Henry Hudson sailed into the mouth of the Hudson River in 1609.  The indigenous people called the large island he found Mannahatta, and that became the name for Sanderson’s endeavor and the title of the book he published in 2009.  Using mapping technology coupled with old maps, historical accounts of the area, specimens collected there in the past, and what is known about the ecology and geology of the island, Sanderson’s team identified 54 different ecosystem types on Mannahatta.  This is a large number for that sized piece of land, and the result of its extensive wetlands along with its varied geological features.  There were also an estimated 600 species of plants.

More recently Sanderson has led an effort to produce the same kind of modeling for New York City’s other four boroughs.  Called Welikia, it too has a website that is still under construction, but includes all the information from the Mannahatta Project.  These are not just interesting exercises in environmental history, they aim at helping the citizens of New York understand the biodiversity that once existed there and how to preserve and nurture as much of it as possible.  It is unlikely that bears will again roam Manhattan, but red-tailed hawks are flourishing (Winn, 1998), and I’ve seen a coyote ambling inside NYBG’s fence as I was stuck in traffic trying to get there.

On the second day of the conference, the botanical illustrator Bobbi Angell presented on the formidable botanical art collection housed at NYBG.  Angell has spent her life creating pen-and-ink drawings to illustrate the scientific work of the garden’s botanists, including many for the seven volume Intermountain Flora: Vascular Plants of the Intermountain West, USA.  The last volume was just recently published (2017) and includes not only some of Angell’s illustrations but biographies of her and other illustrators and botanists who worked on this project that was first envisioned by Bassett Maguire in the 1930s.  There will be more on the editors, Patricia Holmgren and Noel Holmgren, in a future post.

Angell didn’t dwell on her accomplishments, but instead discussed some of the other contributors to the 30,000 pieces in the NYBG art collection.  These include the great French botanical painter Pierre-Joseph Redouté with 10 paintings on linen, but Angell concentrated on 20th and 21st-century artists, including Alexandria Taylor and Frances Horne who did illustrations respectively for Elizabeth Britton and Nathaniel Lord Britton.  Both were distinguished botanists and Britton was NYBG’s founding director.  Angell spoke reverently of artists whom she knew including Anne Ophelia Todd Dowden, who left her finished works to the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation in Pittsburgh, and her working drawings to NYBG, an interesting division.  Then there was Rupert Barneby a self-taught botanist and artist who did research at the garden and became an expert on legumes.   He created his own illustrations until he injured his hand.  Angell ended with a plea for more of the botanical art in library collections to be made available online and a mention of the American Society of Botanical Artists, which has a wonderful journal for members as well as a website on which they can present their work.

The final presentation of the meeting was a public lecture by Victoria Johnson to celebrate the publication of her book, American Eden: David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic (2018).  She began the book and her talk very effectively by telling the story of how David Hosack, a physician, treated a New York boy dying of fever in 1797.  Hosack had tried everything he could without success, and so decided to lower the boy into warm bathwater with cinchona bark mixed in.  Several of these treatments led to the patient’s recovery and to a tearful thank you from his father.  Johnson then paused, and revealed that the father was Alexander Hamilton.  After this surprise, she went on describe some of what she writes about in her book:  how Hosack trained as a physician in the United States and Britain where he developed an interest in botany, even studying with James Edward Smith the founder of the Linnean Society; how he set up a medical practice in New York, obviously attracting an elite clientele; how he developed a plan to create a botanical garden in the city as a way to nurture, study, and teach about medicinally useful plants.  He used his own money to buy 20 acres of land in what is now midtown Manhattan, but was then over three miles north of the city.  He called it the Elgin Botanic Garden after the Scottish town where his family originated.  He built a wall around the property as well as greenhouses and then bought an impressive selection of plants.

Hosack had a long and successful life as a physician, but his story is definitely bittersweet.  He was the attending physician when his friend Alexander Hamilton was shot in the duel with Aaron Burr (it turns out they both were interested in gardening).  The garden, begun in 1801, was destroyed in the 1820s after it had been bought by New York State and then handed over to Columbia College (now Columbia University) for management.  It was neglected and eventually leased by Columbia as real estate prices in that part of Manhattan started to soar. Eventually, it became the site of Rockefeller Center.  However, to end on a happier note, there are a few Elgin Garden specimens in the NYBG herbarium including Diosyros virginiana (see above).

Note: I would like thank all those involved in the wonderful CBHL/EBHL meeting, particularly Susan Fraser, Kathy Crosby, Esther Jackson, and Samantha D’Acunto.  I am also grateful to the participants from whom I learned so much, to Pat Jonas who nudged me to attend, and to Amy Kasameyer who introduced me to CBHL.

References

Holmgren, N. H., & Holmgren, P. K. (2017). Intermountain Flora: Vascular Plants of the Intermountain West, U.S.A (Vol. 7). New York, NY: New York Botanical Garden.

Johnson, V. (2018). American Eden: David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic. New York, NY: Norton.

Sanderson, E. W. (2009). Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City. New York: Abrams.

Winn, M. (1998). Red-Tails in Love: A Wildlife Drama in Central Park. New York: Pantheon.

Libraries and Botany

1 NYBG Rose Garden

Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden at New York Botanical Garden

I recently went to New York, my old stomping ground, for a meeting of the Council of Botanical and Horticultural Librarians (CBHL).  They were celebrating their 50th anniversary and were meeting jointly with the European Botanical and Horticultural Libraries Group (EBHL), celebrating 25 years.  Despite my lack of library expertise, I went because I’m a CBHL member, induced to join by its great website, listserv, and newsletter.  I learn a lot from librarians, particularly when they are involved in things that interest me, namely plants.  I definitely learned a great deal at this conference, ate some great meals, and saw many beautiful plants.  We met at New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) in the Bronx and also spent a day at Brooklyn Botanic Garden (BBG), both possessors of amazingly beautiful gardens and libraries.  Fortunately, the weather was wonderful.  This meeting was in mid-June so both gardens were at their best, and it was great to be able to stroll around them between sessions (see photo above).

On the way to BBG, participants had the opportunity to see another impressive garden, the High Line.  This is an almost 1.5 mile “linear park” on the West Side of lower Manhattan created out of an elevated railway line that had been unused for years.  During that time plants “invaded” the 30-foot-wide expanse, in many areas turning it into green swards.  Residents had climbed onto it illegally to enjoy the greenery and began an effort to make it a park.  I can remember when this effort began.  It seemed quite unrealistic, but it kept gaining support, particularly after 9/11 when the city was looking for ways to restore itself.  The High Line is now an amazing horticultural attraction, with beautiful plants and interesting architectural features.  After being at NYBG the day before, with its 265 acres, it was very interesting for participants to see what can be done within , literally, much narrower constraints.

Then it was on to Brooklyn where we visited the library, which is located in the original administration building and has a small though beautiful reading room.  BBG gave up its science program and herbarium several years ago, a very disturbing decision; its specimens are now on long-term loan to NYBG.  The herbarium and storage for the library were located in a building across the street from the garden.  The structure needed repair so the herbarium was closed, and the librarians had to either de-acquisition material or move it into the original library’s tight quarters.  The process of organizing these resources is still going on.  A beautiful room has been built for BBG’s amazing rare book and botanical illustration collection (see photo below).  It includes the very large format, 34-volume Banks’ Florilegium of plants from Captain Cook’s first voyage around the world.  The head librarian, Kathy Crosby, also displayed a sampling of botanical illustrations created by members of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden Florilegium Society that includes many of the best botanical artists working today.

1 BBG special collections

Special Collections at Brooklyn Botanic Garden

Needless to say, everyone had another feast for the eyes at NYBG.  At the moment, the garden is celebrating the art that Georgia O’Keeffe created in Hawaii, with a number of her works in its art gallery and a display of the plants that inspired her in the conservatory.  During our tour of the library, the archivist Stephen Sinon displayed some of its treasures including its oldest book, a manuscript of the herbal Circa Instans from the  late 12th century, and one of my favorite’s Johannes Gessner’s Tabulae phytographicae, a guide to flowers using the Linnaean system that has wonderful illustrations.  Equally wonderful was a display of herbarium treasures by its director Barbara Thiers, including specimens collected by John Muir, Charles Darwin, and even Thomas Edison.  Since the herbarium has about 7.8 million specimens, this gave just a hint of the wonders it contains, including the work of such 20-21st century botanists as Pat and Noel Holmgren who recently completed the seventh and final volume of Intermountain Flora: Vascular Plants of the Intermountain West, USA (2017).

Since this was a library conference, there were presentations on the latest at a number of institutions.  Amy Kasameyer, archivist at the University of California, Berkeley Herbarium discussed the development of The Silva Center for Phycological Documentation.  Named for Paul Claude Silva (1922-1014), an expert on algae, it includes a library and archives that has been created within the herbarium.  This center is a wonderful adjunct to the herbarium’s extensive phycological collection, the second largest in the country.  Along with this example of physical collection development, there were also a number of presentations on virtual collections.  One was by Deirdre Ryan and Jason Przybylski of JSTOR, which provides access to journals in many fields as well to Artstor for art images and JSTOR Global Plants for botanical journals and over 2 million type specimens, scanned as part of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s Global Plants Initiative.

JSTOR now plans to build on this foundation with a collection called JSTOR Plants & Society that would present botanical, horticultural, and ethnobotanical materials making them useful not only to scientists but to students and to the broader public as well.  In developing this project, JSTOR worked with the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection to host a workshop on Botany and the Humanities to explore what is most needed for future collaborations.  There’s a fascinating video where the participants discuss the exciting ideas that came out of their meetings.  It’s a great window into some wonderful plans for the future particularly about integrating various digital platforms.  I hope at least a few of them come to fruition as soon as possible!

Reference

Holmgren, N. H., & Holmgren, P. K. (2017). Intermountain Flora: Vascular Plants of the Intermountain West, U.S.A (Vol. 7). New York, NY: New York Botanical Garden.

Beautiful Images

From the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum

From the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum

When things get dull, or downright annoying, it is good to take an art break, to simply visit a website that is feast for the eyes.  When I do this, I am not analyzing the images or trying to learn something from them.  I am simply feeding my soul.  I’ve bookmarked several of these sites, so I am ready when I need an aesthetic booster shot.  Among my favorites are the botanical illustration collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Anna Laurent’s Art + Botany blog, and the collection of botanical watercolors and sketches in the Ruskin Library.  All these sites are well worth visiting.

Libri Picturati

The Libri Picturati is a collection of 16th-century natural history watercolors, now housed in the Jagiellonian Library in Kraków, Poland.  There are 15 volumes, 13 of them picturing plants, the remainder animals.  A few years ago, a massive book, Drawn After Nature (KNNV Publishing, 2008), was published with reproductions of all the plant images in the collection.  Some of the illustrations are full-page; most are presented several to a page.  The overall effect is awesome.  There are also essays on an array of aspects of the collection including who served as patron, who did the painting, and who wrote the extensive annotations.  None of these questions have totally unambiguous answers, which just makes the collection more fascinating.  The authors here come to the conclusion that the patron was Charles de Saint Omer, that there were several artists involved with the major contribution made by Jacques vanden Corenhuyse, and that the annotations were by Carolus Clusius who received patronage from Omer and had been a guest at his estate.  In any case, the collection is a wonderful example of the important connection between realistic renditions of plants and the documentation of botanical knowledge in the 16th century.  Drawn After Nature makes the art accessible to a much wider audience, including scholars who are studying the development of botanical art and its connection to the science of botany.