These are some of the techniques botanists and artists use to document plants. Each executed with a keen eye for observation and a steady hand. What we know about plants today would not be possible if it weren’t for the botanists, explorers, doctors, artists and observers who came before us. Many centuries before us.
A new book about the contributions made by these passionate educators was finally released in the United States. The stories of these brave, creative and hard-working souls are shared in The Golden Age of Botanical Art, a wonderful history book by Martyn Rix that is sure to be enjoyed by anyone with an interest in natural history art.
This book is filled with fascinating history and stories about famous and not-so-famous people, many of whom I learned about for the first time. Rix cross-references people, places and events throughout his book and while this helps readers form a big picture of history, it makes summarizing a challenge.
Allow me to give you a quick tour of each section.
The Origins of Botanical Art
Learn why botanical illustrations were created. Also learn about ancient herbals, flower painting during the Renaissance, Leonardo di Vinci, Albrecht Durer, woodcuts, the Turkish Empire, English herbals and why the paintings of Jacopo Ligozzi (1547-1626) were better than anyone who came before him.
Learn about the plants brought to Europe by travelers and naturalists and how the work of botanical illustrators contributed to the development of botany.
North American Plants
Learn about the introduction of North American plants into English gardens and learn about the work of artists and botanists such as John Tradescant the Younger, Mark Catesby, John and William Bartram, Andre & Francois Michaux, Georg Dionysius Ehret and Carl Linnaeus.
Travelers to the Levant
European interest in Asia and the Ottoman Empire is the focus of this section. Botanists and painters receiving special attention are Joseph Pitton de Tournefort, Claude Aubriet, John Sibthorp, and Maria Sibylla Merian.
The Exploration of Russia & Japan
Learn about botanical expeditions into Russia and Japan. View images from Flora Rossica, Flora Japonica and learn about a collection of paintings on vellum started by botanist and naturalist, Gaston d’Orleans.
Botany Bay & Beyond
Learn about expeditions into Australia, the work of artists Sydney Parkinson and Ferdinand Bauer and the scientific contributions of Sir Joseph Banks.
The Golden Age in England
Learn how the Royal Gardens at Kew began and view beautiful plant studies such as the study of Pinus larix by Ferdinand Bauer and the graceful Galeandra devoniana, an orchid by Miss Sarah Anne Drake who was John Lindley’s chief artist.
South American Adventures
Expeditions into Spain and the amazing collections of work produced from these expeditions are the focus of this section.
The Golden Age in France
Learn about Gerard van Spaendonck (Pierre-Joseph Redouté’s teacher), Redouté and Empress Josephine in this section.
Botanical and Horticultural Illustrated Journals
Learn about the history surrounding illustrated journals such as Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, The Botanical Register and others.
Early Chinese Plant Drawings
Learn about the type of botanical art created in China before the Europeans arrived.
The Company School in India
Learn about the work of Indian artists, English artists and the publications produced during the time when the East India Company controlled trade in the East Indies.
A New Era at Kew
More history about Kew and how this world-famous garden was established.
An introduction to the botanical contributions made by artists Janet Hutton, Lt. General John Eyre, Charlotte Lugard, Charlotte Williams, Marianne North and Henry John Elwes.
Bringing China to Europe
This section is about the introduction of Chinese plants into European gardens.
The Flowers of War and Beyond
Rix discusses the history of botanical illustration during World War II. Learn what botanist Geoffrey Herklots did while in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp and what Marianne North’s great nephew did after retiring as an Admiral from the Navy in 1960. Artists Margaret Mee, Barbara Everhard, Graham Stuart Thomas, Rory McEwen and Raymond Booth are also mentioned.
Rix closes his book discussing the work of contemporary botanical artists and by bringing attention to those making key contributions to the current renaissance of botanical art, namely instructor Anne Marie Evans and, of course, botanist and art collector Shirley Sherwood.
In the introduction to his book, Rix thinks aloud and wonders if what we are observing now in the world of botanical art is a new golden age. He explains that the period between 1750-1850 was considered a golden age because the demand for scientific information collided with the enthusiasm of wealthy patrons and with the availability of skilled artists capable of documenting new discoveries.
Today he wonders if the need to preserve disappearing habitat, combined with an abundance of botanical artists and the technological means to create botanical works faster and at a lower cost will create a new golden age even though there is a growing shortage of botanists.
What do you think?
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