The 18th-Century Passion for Botany: Illustrations

3 Gessner Triandria

Illustration of Linnaeus’s triandria class (Table IV) from Johannes Gessner’s Tabulae phytographicae, Biodiversity Heritage Library

In discussing 18th century botany, it’s impossible not to bring up Carl Linnaeus.  As I’ve already discussed (1, 2), his classification system based on flower structure made it easier to identify species.  It also changed the character of botanical illustrations, as noted in an earlier post on Linnaeus’s collaboration with the artist Georg Ehret during their time together at George Clifford’s estate in the Netherlands.  Ehret had already been schooled in the necessity for accuracy and detail by the exacting German botanist Christoph Jacob Trew, but Linnaeus introduced him to a classification system based on the number of male and female parts in a flower.  In many plants, these structures are difficult to see without a magnifying glass or without dissecting the flower.  So while small drawings of such features sometimes appeared at the bottom of botanical illustrations before this time, they then became more common (Nickelsen, 2006).  Also, there was more emphasis on the flower in the main drawing as well.  At times this attention was coupled with less detail on the non-reproductive parts of the plants.  For example, the branch and at least some of the leaves would be just outlines in ink drawings where only the flower was colored.  There were also cases, as in Johannes Gessner’s Tabulae phytographicae (1795-1804), where flowers and fruits were presented with almost no attention to other plant parts (see figure above).

Linnaeus’s work also had the far reaching effect of making botany more popular and thus increasing demand for botanical publications in a variety of formats, most calling for illustrations, again of various sorts.  There were richly illustrated florilegia that emphasized the beauty of plants growing in a particular area, or even in a particular garden.  Usually these had engravings hand-colored on fine paper and produced in small print runs.  More technical books tended to have uncolored illustrations; many botanists thought that color distracted the eye from the structural elements that were important in identifying species.  Toward the end of the century the thirst for botanical publications led to William Curtis’s first issue of the Botanical Magazine which became a long-running journal known for its hand-colored illustrations.  Some of the early ones were done by William Kilburn who then went on to a long career in producing gorgeous botanically themed wallpapers and fabrics, harkening back to the floral embroideries discussed in the last post (Christie, 2011).  After Kilburn, James Sowerby took over (Henderson, 2015).  This was early in his illustrious career as a natural history artist.  Sowerby then teamed up with James Edward Smith, the purchaser of Linnaeus’s herbarium and founder of the Linnean Society, to begin a long-running series of books on English Botany.  These were printed in a small format making them accessible to many interested in botany, yet Smith’s plant descriptions was written with accuracy so they were considered valuable references.  Distinguished gardeners began sending rare plants to Sowerby to use in his paintings, thus adding prestige to their horticultural abilities and all this indicating the continuing passion for plants.

This trend wasn’t just in Britain.  I’ve already mentioned Ehret’s art in Trew’s botanical publications in German, while in France, the center of botanical activity was at the King’s Garden, the Jardin des Plantes, in Paris.  From 1666 to the French Revolution in 1789, there was a full-time artist working at the garden, beginning with Nicolas Robert and including Claude Aubriet who created impressive work for Joseph Pitton de Tournefort’s book on the plants of the Middle East, Aubriet having traveled with the botanist on this voyage; he also illustrated other work by Tournefort.  He was succeeded by his student, Madeleine Basseporte, one of a growing number of women distinguishing themselves as botanical artists.  Finally, there was Gérard van Spaendonck who survived the revolution, was later honored by Napoleon, and taught Pierre-Joseph Redouté, whom many consider the greatest flower painter of all time.

One further aspect of 18th century botanical art to consider is the trend, already mentioned in the case of Aubriet and Tournefort, to include artists along with naturalists on expeditions to little known parts of the world.  When James Cook sailed on his first round-the-world voyage, Joseph Banks and Linnaeus’s student Daniel Solander collected and described plant specimens, and the artist Sydney Parkinson created over 900 drawings of them (Banks et al., 1980).  The ill-fated expedition headed by Jean-François La Pérouse had a similar team as did the voyage of Antoine Bruni d’Entrecasteaux who was sent in search of his missing countrymen (Williams, 2003).  There were also a number of Spanish enterprises, most to Latin America toward the end of the 18th century (Bleichmar, 2011).  It is interesting that many of the expeditions resulted in no publications or extremely delayed ones.  Banks’s planned flora of Australia wasn’t published until the 1980s, and much of the Spanish material was never published by members of the expeditions, though the superb illustrations produced by the artists employed by José Celestino Mutis in New Granada are now available on a well-organized website.  The 18th century was definitely a century when botanical art flourished, feeding the passion for botany and also for floral decorative art in what could be considered a self-perpetuating circle of influence.  In the next post, I’ll look at some of the philosophical ramifications of these trends.

References

Banks, J., Solander, D., & Cook, J. (1980). Banks’ Florilegium (Vols. 1–34). London, UK: British Museum.

Bleichmar, D. (2011). Visible Empire: Botanical Expeditions and Visual Culture in the Hispanic Enlightenment. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Calman, G. (1977). Ehret: Flower Painter Extraordinary. Oxford, UK: Phaidon.

Christie, A. (2011). A taste for seaweed: William Kilburn’s late eighteenth-century designs for printed cottons. Journal of Design History, 24(4), 299–314.

Henderson, P. (2015). James Sowerby: The Enlightenment’s Natural Historian. Kew, UK: Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

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

Williams, R. L. (2003). French Botany in the Enlightenment: The Ill-Fated Voyages of La Perouse and his Rescuers. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer.

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Linnaeus in the Netherlands: George Clifford

3 Clifford Hypericum androsaemum

Hypericum androsaemum from the Clifford Herbarium, courtesy of the Natural History Museum, London

As I mentioned in the first post in this series, Carl Linnaeus had just begun work with Johannes Burman at the Leiden Botanic Garden when George Clifford (1685-1760) asked Linnaeus to write a catalogue of the plants in his garden at Hartekamp, near Haarlem in the Netherlands.  It took some convincing for Burman to release him, but it ended up well for Linnaeus.  He spent over two years at Hartekamp, where he had available to him a large collection of tropical plants from around the world.  Linnaeus had already sketched out his Systema Naturae (1735) before he left Sweden, but his knowledge of plant diversity was limited to northern Europe.  Then he met Jan Frederik Gronovius, who had studied plants that John Clayton had sent him from Virginia and Burman, who had Paul Herman’s specimen collection from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).  His horizons were broadening (see last post).

Clifford was a wealthy Dutch financier and a director of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) that oversaw a worldwide shipping organization making the Netherlands a mercantile power.  From the VOC’s creation in 1602, its captains and ship surgeons were given directions on how to make collections and transport specimens, seeds, bulbs, and cuttings back home.  The more exotics that reached home, the more the Dutch became avid gardeners hungry for still more plant novelties.  Because of his position, Clifford had first dibs on the plants that arrived in Holland, and he had the interest and knowledge to appreciate them.  To give a sense of the scope of his collection, he had four greenhouses, one each for plants from Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas.  At this time, gardening and sophisticated plant collecting were status symbols for the elite; Clifford’s Hartekamp was obviously a premier example.  Even his herbarium specimens reflected his status.  The sheets had elaborately printed labels, and the cut end of each plant was covered with a printed urn (Thijsee, 2018).  This became a fad at the time among the rich and botanically sophisticated (see figure below).

Among the living plants in Clifford’s unique collection was a banana tree, which was growing well but had never blossomed or produced fruit.  Linnaeus gave it special attention and took credit for inducing it into flower in four months with a regimen of restricting watering, and then watering generously.  This was one of the first times this feat had been achieved in Europe and was so noteworthy that Linnaeus wrote a short book on the plant, and Clifford had it published (Rutgers, 2008).  This added luster to both their names; it also indicated Linnaeus’s skills with living plants as well as with identifying specimens.

Another important event during this time was the arrival of the German artist Georg Ehret at Hartekamp in 1736.  Ehret had already produced a large portfolio of botanical watercolors for several patrons, none of whom paid very well.  He had come to the Netherlands after doing some work in England and called on Clifford in the hope of finding further employment.  Clifford was indeed interested in Ehret’s work and even paid his asking price for a number of paintings.  Ehret remained at Hartekamp for a month, working on illustrations for Clifford’s catalogue.  Linnaeus explained to Ehret his plant classification system based on the reproductive structures in flowers.  He had worked out 24 classes simply by counting the number and arrangement of the stamens or pollen-producing male organs, with the 24th class reserved for those without visible stamens.  Within each class were subclasses depending up on the number of female organs.  The beauty of the system was its relative simplicity, grounded in traits that were usually visible and countable.

Ehret illustrated the system with a chart that has become famous, a simple visual representation of the 24 classes (see figure below).  He published it shortly after leaving Hartekamp and Linnaeus also published it much later, but not crediting Ehret.  Working in close proximity together, even for a month, must have been important to them both during this early formative period in their careers.  Ehret, who had already developed the practice of dissecting flowers and illustrating their parts, often with magnification, learned from Linnaeus the pivotal importance of these structures in identifying species.  On the other hand, Linnaeus was able to see the artistic and intellectual work that went into creating first-rate botanical art.  In their book Objectivity, Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison (2007) write of four-eyed sight, which results from an artist and a scientist working and looking together, resulting in an image that satisfies both.  Linnaeus and Ehret could very well have collaborated in this way.  After he left Hartekamp, Ehret had a long career in England producing illustrations for many major botanical works including those of Philip Miller and Christoph Jacob Trew, who had been an early patron of Ehret’s in Germany.

3 Ehret
Georg Ehret’s diagram of Carl Linnaeus’s classification system, courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library

Most of the illustrations in the Clifford catalogue were done by Ehret and the remainder by Jan Wanderlaar, who also engraved the plates.  It took Linnaeus nine months to write the text (Blunt, 1971).  The species descriptions were organized according the classification system Linnaeus had laid it out in his Genera Plantarum, which was also published during this time (1737).  While he was in Hartekamp, he published early versions of other works as well.  Clifford also afforded him the time and the resources to become better educated in botany.  Besides his herbarium and garden, Clifford also had a substantial library, with all the leading botanical references of the day.  Hartekamp must have been a difficult place to leave.  However, after spending almost three years in the Netherlands, Linnaeus’s thoughts were of Sweden.  Yet he didn’t go directly home.  His further wanderings will be examined in the next post.

References

Blunt, W. (1971). The Compleat Naturalist: A Life of Linnaeus. New York, NY: Viking.

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

Rutgers, J. (2008). Linnaeus in the Netherlands. TijdSchrift Voor Skandinavistiek, 29, 103–116.

Thijsse, G. (2018). A contribution to the history of the herbaria of George Clifford III (1685–1760). Archives of Natural History, 45(1), 134–148.