The Golden Age of Botanical Illustration
The period from approximately 1700 to 1840 has been called the Golden Age of Botanical Illustration. It was an era when botanical drawing reached its height— sustained by both popular tastes and supportive infrastructures. In addition to the Dutch penchant for commercial cultivation and the German appreciation for quality printing, the English were establishing a reputation for horticultural science and the French for art. Dutch seed catalogues seemed a likely progenitor to such works as the Gardener’s Dictionary, complied by Arthur Miller, and Catalogus Plantarum (1730), a project of the Society of Gardeners, an English trade guild.
These publications sought to clarify differences between plants, creating more knowledgeable patrons who would be less apt to blame the horticulturalists for their purchasing mistakes. Both English books employed Jacob van Huysum (1686/87-1740), a Dutch flower painter with an artistic pedigree; his father and brother were similarly engaged, rendering their work in a similar style.
Indeed, the era’s luminaries traveled between countries and, frequently, between trades. Georg Dionysius Ehret (1708-1770) is one of the most brilliant examples. The son of poor German growers and vendors, he learned how to draw from his father at an early age. The boy was placed as a gardener’s apprentice, soon to become an overseer, all the while impressing employers with his developing artistry. At first, his talent yielded nothing but engravers’ jobs for which he received little pay. But the young man did amass a portfolio—and the confidence of Christoph Jacob Trew (1695-1769), a wealthy Nuremburg physician with an immense interest in botany. Trew became Ehret’s collector, promoter, and sometime publishing collaborator. (It should be emphasized, however, that Trew’s productions extended well beyond Ehret.)
Reinforced with letters of introduction, the artist traipsed through Europe, often on foot, painting interesting, new flowers and sending his works to Trew. One of his contacts led him to the pioneering Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus (17071778), who developed a uniform system for classifying and naming species that remains, at least partially, in practice today. Moving permanently to London during 1736, Ehret illustrated Linnaeus’s Genera Plantarum (1737)—for which he was paid, but not credited. The artist nevertheless maintained a collaborative, long-distance relationship with Trew. He also counted a number of other partners and elite patrons (notably the Duchess of Portland) and gained distinction toward the end of his life as the only foreign-born Fellow of the Royal Society. Some botanical illustrators felt comfortable with a limited repertoire of flowers; Ehret could handle virtually all. He painted them in an oversized way for striking presentation. Most of all—as someone who claimed both spheres of influence—he balanced accurate representation with artistry.
Pierre-Joseph Redoute (1759-1840) was the most popular figure of the Golden Age. In fact, his name remains synonymous with botanical illustration. Unlike the happenstance career path foisted upon Ehret, Redoute came from a long line of Belgium painters. He flailed about as a traveling artist during his teenage years, but took the opportunity to study the Flemish masters and, when visiting Amsterdam, developed a passion for the work of the recently deceased flower painter Jan van Huysum. Van Huysum’s bountiful bouquets consumed entire canvases, yet captured details: dew drops, insects, thin streams of light. On the other hand, they were not flowers that might be seen at the same time or grown in the same place.
Inspired, the now mature and motivated Redoute sojourned to the Jardin du Roi and the mentorship of the well-healed and connected botanist Charles Louis
L’Heritier (1746-1800). Besides granting the young man access to a voluminous library and personally providing him with botanical instruction, it was likely that through L’Heritier, Redoute became draftsman to the cabinet of French queen Marie Antoinette (1755-1793). This was a largely ceremonial title that nevertheless enhanced Redoute’s reputation. He soon benefited from close association with Dutch artist Gerard van Spaendonck (1746-1822), a brilliant professor of flower painting—and another follower of Van Huysum.
Redoute transitioned nicely from the Revolution to the Empire: Empress Josephine Bonaparte (1763-1814) put him on salary to capture for posterity the living treasures at Malmaison; a number of beautiful published volumes ensued, further contributing to Redoute’s legacy. Living the noble life as far as his money would take him, Redoute also attracted his own students, including royal scions. He rose to the top tier of botanical illustration for many reasons. A natural talent descended from artistic lineage, Redoute quickly learned from—indeed, copied the style of—the masters, notably Van Spaendonck. His career also coincided with some complementary new technology. Stipple engraving used dots instead of lines, presenting more natural, gradual color changes. The technology put a different spin on his work, elevating it above those of his predecessors.
With Redoute as with Ehret, we see evolving public patronage (initially exemplified by paying students), diversifying artists’ economic options, and gradually starting to replace a dependence on royalty. In addition, a growing professionalism and mentoring relationships helped to establish careers. The Golden Age of Botanical Art also transferred from nobility to government what was to become a global institution: the Kew Gardens. Highly placed staff there nurtured botanical illustration and forums for presenting it. A veteran of Captain James Cook’s worldwide voyage, British explorer and naturalist Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820) acquired and archived some of Ehret’s works, donated his herbarium and personal library collection to public repositories, and permanently instituted the position “draftsman” at Kew. That job was filled by Franz Bauer (1758-1840), whose brother Ferdinand (1760-1826) became known for botanicals illustration and traveled on expeditions to capture plant life in the Mideast, Maritius, and Australia—where he named a small group of islands after Banks. As leading botany professors and successive directors of the Kew, Sir William Jackson Hooker (1785-1865) and his son, Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817-1911), installed the highly skilled Walter Hood Fitch (1817-1892) and, later, his similarly talented nephew, John Nugent Fitch (1840-1927), as illustrators of the respected Botanical Magazine—and other publications.
With global exploration graduating to colonization, the lack of Asian influence in botanical illustration is puzzling. Flower painting was firmly established in China by the T’ang dynasty (618-906 CE) and in Korea about the same time. It subsequently came to Japan. Among other differences, East Asian artists relied more on black-and-white shading—and less on the imposition of color—than
Europeans. India had a floral tradition, too, derived in part from Persian-Mogu! antecedents, which yielded a highly stylized, symmetrical appearance.
Europeans expropriated neither. Instead, they either brought their botanists and illustrators with them (Ferdinand Bauer provides a good example) or instructed native artists in Western styles. Still, Asia fused with Europe through creative, commercial hybrids. Mary Delany (1700-1788), a friend of the German composer George Frederic Handel, British writer Jonathan Swift, and the arts the patron Duchess of Portland, earned a place for herself at the British Museum through her intricate floral “mosaics.” According to contemporary testimony, Sir Joseph Banks said that “he would venture to describe botanically any plant from Mrs. Delany’s imitations without the least fear of committing an error.” Her medium was imported Chinese paper, finely cut and formed into flowers.
And while Westerners did not fawn over Asian floral illustration (at least initially), they adored its porcelain. By the 1700s, European manufacturers were beginning to produce their own. “China painting” often employed Western “flower books” as a reference for artists decorating this increasingly popular dining ware. However, some of the finest, most valued products—the German Meissen designs immediately come to mind—did, in fact, incorporate Oriental-style flowers and themes, among other motifs.
Whatever the subgenre, the creators often remained anonymous from the earliest days when herbal silhouettes were copied to oblivion, through the early modern era when publishers co-opted flower paintings and illustrations without giving artists any credit. The Statute of (Queen) Anne in 1709 reduced the publishers’ guilded advantage, instituting copyrights for writers and artists—and introducing the concept of public domain. As befitting a culturally connected former colony, the U.S. Copyright Act of 1790 borrowed heavily from the statute.
The Victorian Era to Today
As with creative rights, new technologies brought botanical illustrators closer to publication processes. Straightforward printing eliminated the need for middlemen who would copy or otherwise interpret their work. Henry Bradbury patented a method during the 1850s with two similarly sized plates: a soft lead portion held plant material directly, as a steel component forced an impression of it. The final stage was electroprinting. Inspired by photography, botanist Anna Atkins (1797-1871) published British Algae in 1854. She used the process of cyanotype to duplicate 400 minute species within her herbarium: plants with details that could easily evade a draftsperson. Cyanotype was very direct. The botanist laid her plants on photosensitive paper, exposed briefly to sunlight. The result was an image in “cyan” blue. For whatever their merits, both printing processes captured the plant’s profile and internal arteries—but not their textures, depth, or dimensions. Photography, of course, became both a practical and creative aid in botanical illustration.
An increasingly middle-class Victorian public bought into flower arrangements of all types. The arts-and-crafts designer William Morris (1834-1896) entered floral themes into his stained glass, tapestries, wallpapers, and other furnishings. Morris’s swirling, two-dimensional patterns in varying color schemes were not botanically accurate, yet his use of woodblocks as a design tool recalled early botanical illustration.
Herbaria evolved during the Age of Discovery as a way of transporting and preserving unique botanical specimens. They consisted simply of dried plants, pressed and mounted. Both scientists and artists nevertheless came to appreciate them. The River Jordan (1900), published by the Boulos Meo Company as a tourist souvenir book, boasted olive wood covers that opened to complementary folios: photos of holy sites on one side and drawings with local (Middle Eastern) dried flowers affixed on the other. The pressed-flower fad continued through the early 20th century and enjoys periodic revivals.
On view at Harvard’s Museum of Natural History are more exotic species: the Ware Collection of Glass Plants. Created by a German father and son, Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka, they were commissioned over a 50-year period, from the late 1880s to 1936. The idea began with George Lincoln Goodale, Harvard professor and Botanical Museum founder, initially in rebellion against pressed flowers, as well as wax or papier-mache models that he believed would not hold up well to classroom uses. The botanical detail, artistry, and use of glass together form a uniquely beautiful presentation.
As gardening became a middle-class leisure pursuit in the 20th century, botanical illustration made its way into mainstream publishing and related commercial enterprises. Professional, serious hobbyist, and popular magazines satisfied a craving for practical information. Illustrators and photographers worked together on these gardening periodicals. Such practice is evident in Sunset Magazine’s Western Garden Book, considered a bible by several generations of home growers. Seed and catalogue companies engaged illustrators, too, as did culinary publications. The covers of Cook’s Illustrated magazine provide a contemporary view, though sometimes with Dutch backgrounds and Impressionistic influences. A recent book lists over 35 resources for British botanical illustrators and artists, including several formal education programs. The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (or simply, Kew), is the largest and most varied resource of its type in the world. It currently employs 800 staff, and contains an herbarium of 7 million species, a seed bank, a 750,000-volume library, and publishing program that produces over 20 new titles annually. Many will agree that Shirley Sherwood, author, collector, and benefactor of the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art at the Kew, is the individual most responsible for reviving the genre today.
Botanical gardens in the United States are owed to both commercial forces (cemeteries inspiring naturalistic parklands) and government initiative. Congress appropriated grounds to establish a horticultural center and museum on the Washington Mall during 1820, but the impetus came more than two decades later, after the Wilkes Expedition brought plants from the South Seas. The U.S. Botanic Garden opened to the public in 1850. Privately funded agencies as diverse as the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens near Los Angeles and the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation at Carnegie-Mellon University, Pittsburgh, contribute greatly to the field. Finally, membership organizations hold sway here, with practitioners banding together under the American Society of Botanical Artists (ASBA) and Guild of Natural Science Illustrators.
Some technical experimentation occurs. Still, botanical illustrators generally adhere to low-tech media: graphite (pencil); pen and ink; scratchboard; colored and watercolor pencils; watercolor, gouache, and acrylic paints. What further defines an illustration is the canvas. Like Ehret, Redoute, and the classicists, a significant number of today’s experts prefer vellum, stretched calfskin.
Day jobs in illustration aside, practitioners can gain a reputation through juried shows. ASBA requires that the judges include both botanists and artists. And while methods may be traditional, the exhibition topics tend to be more contemporary. A 2011 ASBA show, also its first international venue, focused on “Losing Paradise? An Exhibition of Endangered Plants Here and Around the World.” Over in England, Prince Charles published his Highgrove Florigium (2008). The first step was inviting leading botanical artists to capture in watercolors the trees, flowers, vegetables, and herbs growing organically at his Highgrove estate. Their work was submitted to an expert panel for publication review. Traditions notwithstanding, botanical art has a more global character. Several Japanese practitioners are members of the Botanical Artist Guild of Southern California.
Illustrators who work for publishers or for archival purposes now draw their plants directly into computers. Automation allows them to customize some of their techniques—their style of stippling (showing texture through dots) or hatching (via lines). Some say that computer printers need to be calibrated every day for the truest color effects. Still, the fondness for intimacy and tactile interactions with plants and drawing implements remains unchanged. The contemporary illustrator initially applying his or her stylus to filmy computer paper is not that far removed from the engraver-artist Crispin de Passe (1590-1664) who, perhaps tentatively at first, approached his plates with the then-newfangled burim.
Lynn C. Kronzek
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Blunt, Wilfrid. The Art of Botanical Illustration: An Illustrated History. New York: Dover, 1994.
Cantor, Norman F. Civilization of the Middle Ages. New York: HarperCollins, 1993. Folsom, James P. Plant Trivia TimeLine: A Chronology of Plants and People. https:// sitesgoogle.com/site/ourvegetablekingdom (accessed 8 July 2011).
Oxley, Valerie. Botanical Illustration. Ramsbury, Marlborough, U.K.: Crowood Press, 2009.
Rix, Martyn. The Art of the Plant World: The Great Botanical Illustrators and Their Work. Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 1980.
Saunders, Gill. Picturing Plants: An Analytical History of Botanical Illustration. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.
The author acknowledges personal communications with James P. Folsom, director, Huntington Botanical Gardens, San Marino, California (April 2011); Deborah Shaw, scientific illustrator, board of directors, Botanical Artists Guild of Southern California (April 2011); and Alice Tangerini, staff illustrator, Smithsonian Institution, Museum of Natural History, Washington, D.C. (May 2011).