Sadie Price in the Herbarium

4a Asplenium

Sadiee Price’s drawing of Asplenium spinulosum in the library archives, Missouri Botanical Garden.

Since I am interested in the relationship of science and art, I am intrigued by the connections between drawings and herbarium specimens, as in the case Blanche Ames’s watercolor sketches attached to Oakes Ames’s sheets of orchid specimens (see earlier post).  There are also many instances where loose drawings and botanical prints were stored in folders along with specimens in herbarium cabinets.  In other words, they were seen as works of science more than of art.  This practice is less common today, when the same items are considered more as artworks that need to be protected from the chemicals in plant material that could discolor or damage them.  At the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, many illustrations are still housed in the herbarium but in separate boxes from the specimens.  At the Royal Botanical Garden, Edinburgh former curator Henry Nolte acidulously went through the herbarium folders removing illustrations and then attempted to reorganize them according to artist or to the collector who had created a particular collection.

Such separation is now common practice.  At the Field Museum, Christine Niezgoda showed me a file of illustrations she has found amid herbarium folders.  She said she was more likely to find them in folders from plant groups that are not under intensive studies by museum botanists—these just aren’t accessed often.  She discovered a beautiful collection of prints filed with Japanese specimens.  At the Missouri Botanical Garden (MOBOT), Doug Holland, director of the library, told me a similar story.  While their tropical collections are heavily used, this is less true of American plants.  However in preparing a flora of Missouri, George Yatskievych, then at MOBOT now at the University of Texas, came upon a number of drawings by a Kentucky amateur botanist and botanical illustrator, Sadie Price (1849-1903).  Most were the size of a herbarium sheet, and some even had herbarium labels.  Since the sheets had acquisition numbers, Yatskievych was able to track down hundreds of them, that are now kept in the MOBOT archives along with Price’s beautiful drawings of insects and other animals.

When I visited the Sachs Museum at MOBOT (see last post), I then went over to the library and looked at some of the Price botanical illustrations.  She had done a book on ferns as a guide for collecting, and for most of the species presented there, matching drawings can be found among her artwork.  Usually there are two per species, one a preparatory sketch and then a finished drawing.  The sketch is often almost as detailed as the drawing, though the latter has a herbarium label giving the Latin name and order of the fern, the date and place of collection and the collector’s name (see image above).  In many cases, the labels are printed with room for the information to be written in.  At the top there is a line for “Herbarium of . . . ” and there Price wrote in the county where the plant was found.  This is an interesting way to present a drawing.  It is useful because it indicates that a living plant was used as the model and provides information relating to it.  If the plant were a new species, this would be particularly important.  And in fact, Sadie did discover more than one new species of flowering plant, for example, Apios priceana, Price’s groundnut.

None of the fern drawings are in watercolor, but many flowering plants are.  Usually it is not the entire drawing, but portions—including the flower and/or fruit to striking effect (see figure below).  The rest of the drawing is done in pencil; Price rarely used ink except for her initials.  When I met Doug Holland at a meeting last year, he told me about the Price collection, and I was intrigued by her use of the herbarium sheet format.  I became more interested after I went through many of her drawings.  Even when she didn’t paste on labels, she often replicated the label format either on a handwritten scrap pasted to the sheet, or else she drew a rectangular box in pencil and filled the information in there.

4b Aesculus

Sadie Price’s drawing of Aesculus octandra in the library archives, Missouri Botanical Garden

Price was determined to have her drawings look like specimen sheets, yet this wasn’t because they replaced specimens for her.  She also collected plants, and many of her specimens are now at MOBOT, in some cases of the same plants she drew.  All her natural history materials along with a scrapbook were given to the garden by her sister after her death.  The scrapbook is filled with interesting letters, newspaper cuttings, notes, etc., including an article from the Bowling Green Advocate announcing Price’s gold medal for her herbarium display, the best among 100 entries at the Chicago World’s Fair.  This suggests that her specimens were as elegant as her drawings, and also that creating herbaria was still a common pursuit among natural history buffs at the end of the 19th century.

The Advocate article proudly noted that the award was an indication that “Miss Price is in the first rank of scientists in the nation.”  I am not sure that university-trained botanists would have agreed, but Price would have been pleased with the compliment.  I think that her use of specimen labels on her illustrations was an attempt to both increase their scientific value and also to suggest that the artist knew enough botany to understand why identification of place and time as well as species was important.

Note:  I would like to thank Doug Holland for sharing information about Sadie Price with me and showing me so much of her art.

The Sachs Museum

3 Sachs ceiling

Upper gallery and ceiling of the Sachs Museum at the Missouri Botanical Garden

It bothers me when I can’t get into a museum.  I don’t mean because I got there on a day it’s not open, but because it’s permanently closed.  When my husband and I visited Paris in 1983, this was the case with the National Museum of Natural History, which had been shuttered for years.  So it was particularly thrilling 12 years later when we were able to see the entire building and experience its Grand Gallery of Evolution with a parade of organisms spread across it.  It was also exciting recently when I was able to tour the Stephen and Peter Sachs Museum at the Missouri Botanical Garden.  When I was at the garden several years ago, the museum was closed, as it had been for years.   It only opened once a year on Henry Shaw’s birthday to celebrate the garden’s founder.  When Peter Wyse Jackson became President of MOBOT in 2010, he spearheaded an effort to renovate and reopen the museum.  An adjacent facility was added to provide better access and the entire interior was conserved and refurbished.  I was lucky enough to tour it with curator, Nezka Pfeifer, who was particularly proud of the first exhibition mounted since the museum’s opening, “Leafing Through History: Plants that Make Paper.”  We began in the lower level, originally an area for labs and offices.  It is now a gallery, at that moment filled with paper art, including origami done by a number of notable artists in this medium, among them Robert J. Lang.  In the center of the room were striking large flower sculptures made by the artist Megan Singleton from paper she created from lotus plants.  Fortunately, there is a catalogue of the exhibit available as a pdf.

When we went upstairs to the main gallery, my eyes immediately focused on the ceiling with its elaborate trompe d’oeil mural that resembles a conservatory roof with a trellised balcony filled with plants (see image above).  This is a refinished version of the original created by the Italian artist Leon Pomarede who had emigrated to St. Louis in 1831 and became known for his panoramas and landscapes.  Shaw commissioned him to create this work for the museum’s opening in 1859, and when it was repainted, some plants were added or rendered more botanically correct.  There are now 96 species represented, and they can be found on a story map.  But the mural is only the first of many wonders in the two-tiered main hall.  The museum was built in the style of one of the economic botany museum buildings at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, the major source of inspiration for Shaw in creating many aspects of his garden.

Early in his planning, Shaw got in touch with William Jackson Hooker, director of Kew, and among his queries was where he could find a botanist to assist him.  Hooker informed him that the perfect person for the job was already in St. Louis:  George Engelmann, a German physician who had arrived in St. Louis in 1835.  Engelmann had collected plants on several tours of his adopted land, and had made contact both with collectors like his countrymen Augustus Fendler and Ferdinand Lindheimer and botanists like John Torrey and Asa Gray.  Engelmann encouraged Shaw to not only create a garden that would delight the city, but also a research institution.  In the mid-19th century there weren’t models for such an enterprise in the United States, however, Kew fit the bill.  Shaw made several trips to Europe, and he also sent Engelmann to buy books for a botanical library.  While there Engelmann bought the 60,000 specimen herbarium of Johann Bernhardi, that was rich in tropical as well as European species.  Along with Engelmann’s own large herbarium collection, this became the foundation for MOBOT’s now nearly seven million specimens.

Since Hooker had created the first economic botany museum that eventually spread over four buildings at Kew, Shaw wanted such a facility as well.  As at Kew the glass-faced wooden cases on both levels of his museum were filled with specimens and plant products.  Now, the upper cabinets have a display of beautiful ceramics, but there is no public access because the balconies are fragile.  Hanging from the balcony railings are portraits of distinguished botanists of the past including, of course, Carl Linnaeus and also Engelmann and Gray.  On the main level at the time of my visit, most of the cabinets were filled with displays related to the paper exhibit, including copies of herbarium specimens for plants used in paper making, various paper products, and books on papermaking from MOBOT’s extensive library.  There were also two cabinets dedicated to the great Alexander von Humboldt to recognize the 250th anniversary of his death (see earlier posts, 1,2,3,4).

Behind the main hall is a smaller room, with a vaulted ceiling that had been covered over at some time in the past.  When the covering was removed, the restorers were surprised to find three painted panels, with small portraits of none other than Gray and Engelmann to either side of Linnaeus.  These have been beautifully restored.  This room held another portion of the paper exhibit; Michael Powell created abstract works in handmade paper, based on the colors of different areas within the garden, during the day and at night.  The entire exhibit on paper was a great way to introduce visitors to this extraordinary building, and the next exhibition is now open.  It’s focus is on the potato.  My heritage, like that of Wyse Jackson, makes me think that there couldn’t be a better subject.  Nezka Pfieffer develops this concept beautifully through art and the wonderful resources in MOBOT’s herbarium, library, and economic botany collections.

Note:  I would like to thank Nezka Pfeifer at the Sachs Museum for spending so much time guiding me through the museum and telling me about its history.