Rereading Botany: Botanical Sketchbooks

Richard Dreyer’s copy of James Edward Smith’s copy of Flora Britannica, Linnean Society of London

This week’s entry in my survey of botanical rereading is Botanical Sketchbooks, a book really as much about re-seeing.  The authors Helen and William Bynum (2017) have both had long careers in the history of medicine and know well the botanical literature and accompanying archives.  Their Remarkable Plants That Shape Our World (2014) describes many fascinating species that are also useful, from foods to medicines to textiles; it’s illustrated with botanical art from the collection at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.  With Sketchbooks, the Bynums draw from many sources.  This is where I learned of the two volumes of Fabio Colonna’s nature prints that are in Blickling Hall in Britain.  I had read somewhere that Colonna had done nature printing but he is much better known for his books with fine copper engravings, an early use of the technique for botanical illustration.  I had no idea that the prints were so sophisticated.  These were done in the early 1600s, and in some cases the engravings were copied from the prints (Tognini, 2005).

The watercolors of British garden and field flowers painted by Percy Shelley’s sisters, Hellen and Margaret, were another surprise.  As were the notebooks of Charles Parish, a clergyman serving with the East India Company in Burma.  He and his wife had a garden with 150 orchids species, and he wrote that “hardly a day passed on which I did not either draw or examine microscopically one orchid or another” (p. 85).  Collections like this suggest the wealth hidden away in archives (Clayton, 2014).  Some are of scientific interest, but all have historical and cultural value, saying much about how people chose to spend their time in experiencing nature.

Needless to say, there are many well-known botanists and botanical artists represented in the Bynum book.  Though I’ve seen some of their work before, it’s always a pleasure to re-look at it.  One representative of the botanist/artist category is Joseph Dalton Hooker.  It’s interesting to see what information he considered worth recording on the spot as he drew rhododendrons in India, including leaves with insect damage, enlargement of flower parts, and sketches of entire shrubs.  There are also examples from the work of Walter Hood Fitch, the artist who converted many Hooker sketches into finished plates.  Arthur Harry Church, known for his distinctive cross sections through flowers, is represented with the authors noting that later in life Church took up photography to document plant life around Oxford (Mabberly, 2000).  Interesting facts like this add zest to the text and show the depth of their knowledge.

The Bynums also reveal breadth in their choices as well.  The Japanese Honzō zufu, Illustrated Manual of Medical Plants was written by Iwasaki (Kan’en) Tsunemasa (1786-1842) who also did many of the illustrations, though there were other artists including Okada Seifuku who created a large number of botanical watercolors on rice paper, some of which were published.  Several volumes of Honzō zufu are available on the Library of Congress website, and even more on the University of Tokyo Library site.  In addition, Kew has just had one of their volumes of this work restored and plans to digitize it as well.  The Botanical Sketchbooks provide a tantalizing peak at a few of the original works and also presents another artist active at around the same time, Yoshikawa Kokei.  His art was not in the service of science, but he believed in close observation and this is obvious in his sketchbooks arranged according to season.  The drawings are accurate, and the species easy to identify, yet they are also quintessentially Japanese in style.  Muhammad Shafi’ was an artist in the 17th-century Persian court and also drew accurately but distinctively.  A beautiful clump of violets is pictured and in another work, roses are drawn in pen and ink.  The Bynums suggest that this image was copied from a European engraving because of the striations and cross-hatching, but the overall effect is still Persian.

I am having a difficult time deciding who else to mention, whose work to squeeze in here.  There are just too many treasures.  Conrad Gessner’s notebooks are classics of drawing as a way of learning about plants, as are Georg Ehret’s and Franz Baurer’s.  The latter artists’ sketches are in many ways even better than their finished works because they reveal the way they approached plants, moving from one detail to another, but also studying overall forms.  Then there are the biggies of the art world, Leonardo Da Vinci and Albrecht Dürer, as well as that superb recorder of nature, John Ruskin.

Yet it’s the artists that were unfamiliar to me that I keep returning to, such as Richard Dreyer, a British clergyman with an interest in botany who became a member of the Linnean Society in 1817.  The Society’s founder James Edward Smith, published an unillustrated Flora Britannica (1800-1804).  Dreyer set about illustrating it with watercolors in the margins, including dissections of flowers and even roots for some plants.  It is a unique combination of art and text [see image above].  Now held at the Linnean Society, it documents Dreyer’s passion for plant knowledge in different forms, none alone could tell the entire story.  Its inclusion here with so many other wonderful unpublished works demonstrates the Bynum’s passion for art and nature.


Bynum, H., & Bynum, W. (2014). Remarkable Plants That Shape Our World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bynum, H., & Bynum, W. (2017). Botanical Sketchbooks. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.

Clayton, D. (2014). The Reverend Charles Samuel Pollock Parish – plant collector and botanical illustrator of the orchids from Tenasserim Province, Burma. Lankesteriana, 13(3), 215–227.

Mabberley, D. (2000). Arthur Harry Church: The Anatomy of Flowers. London: Natural History Museum.

Tognoni, F. (2005). Nature Described: Fabio Colonna and Natural History Illustration. Nuncius, 20, 347–370.

Showing Off Botanical Illustrations

The husband and wife team of historians of science, Helen and William Bynum, recently published Remarkable Plants That Shape Our World (University of Chicago Press, 2014).  It is based on their broad knowledge of the history of how plants have been used, particularly as medicines, and also on their thorough knowledge of the collections at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.  All of the illustrations are drawn from Kew collections–from its herbarium, economic botany collection, library, and botanical art.  The text is quite interesting.  The Bynums pack quite a bit into the plant descriptions that run to about a page in length.  They cover the history of the plant’s use as food, medicine, etc. and provide other intriguing botanical information as well.  However, the illustrations are definitely what make the book so noteworthy.  Besides drawing from such well-know works at those of Fuchs and Redouté, they also include unpublished original paintings, many by indigenous artists, particularly for illustrating Indian plants, since several 19th-century botanists hired native artists to help them to document the rich flora of the subcontinent.  There are also a number of herbarium specimens pictured, something not often seen in such richly illustrated books that usually focus on botanical prints and watercolors.  Finally, there are items from the economic botany collection, which itself has a rich history, being founded by William Hooker and developed by Joseph Dalton Hooker in the 19th century, the heyday of such collections.  It is the combination of these different kinds of images that makes this book particularly alluring.

There have been two other books published recently that show off the botanical collections of noteworthy institutions.  One is Flora Illustrated (Yale, 2014) edited by Susan Fraser and Vanessa Sellers of the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG).  They and the other contributors cover a wide range of topics, from the illustrations of early modern botany to seed catalogues of the 19th and early 20th centuries.  However, there is nothing from the garden’s massive herbarium and few illustrations that aren’t from published sources.  There are some notebooks highlighted, those of the botanists John Torrey and William Whitman Bailey, as a reminder of the libraries’ archival treasures.  But essentially, this is a book about books.

A different approach to a vast collection is Flora: An Artistic Voyage Through the World of Plants (2014) by Sandy Knapp of the Natural History Museum, London, which published this book.  This has a wonderful text with fascinating illustrations but here most are from the Museums’ vast collection of art.  Knapp takes the interesting tack of focusing on particular genera or families and providing a dozen or so images of each along with a commentary about the plants’ structure, physiology, habitat, and cultivation.  One annoying feature of the book’s organization is that the descriptions of the illustrations, which are very useful, are gathered at the end of the chapter, given along side a thumbnail of each illustration.  This makes for much paging back and forth within a chapter.  As in the NYBG book, the herbarium is almost ignored here.  However, I must add that Knapp is author of another book, also called Flora (Schirmer/Mosel, 1997) with spectacular photos of specimens done by Nick Knight.  There too Knapp provides commentaries on the plants, but they are less lengthy than those in her new book.  The photos are definitely works of art, rather than herbarium documents, since the backgrounds are cleaned up and sheet labels and notations have been erased.