As the University has announced an exciting programme of Summer events at the Botanic Gardens in Oadby, we explore the art of botanical illustration through our Special Collections.
Part of my work as an adviser in Archives and Special Collections is to research and select books to showcase in the David Wilson Library Basement. Last month I could not help noticing the lovely fluttering daffodils (narcissi) on my way to campus. The flowering season is too short, they are mostly gone now but I have taken a photo of them!
This inspired me to show some Spring flowers found in this book – British phaenogamous botany: or, Figures and descriptions of the genera of British flowering plants, 1834-43 by William Baxter. Published in six volumes, the botanist detailed facts of each plant such as shapes and growth habits. Researchers estimate that nearly 40% of plant species are threatened with extinction. Baxter’s work provides much insight on biodiversity at the time and was one of the first books to use colour illustrations to show realistic details of plants.
Scientific accuracy and visual appeal
The book features more than 500 engravings by Isaac Russell and C. Matthews and it is believed to have been hand-coloured by Baxter’s daughters and daughter-in-law. The illustrations are pleasing to look at and have a calming effect that brings one closer to the nature. I am intrigued to find out more about these illustrations. While flowers have been a popular subject for artists, as evidenced by iconic works like Van Gogh’s Sunflowers and Monet’s Water Lilies, they are more of artistic expression and may not necessarily tell us much about scientific aspects. This is where botanical illustration comes in, with an emphasis on scientific accuracy and visual appeal. The images are not only pretty, but also serve the function to identify a plant or distinguish it from other species. According to the Royal Horticultural Society, botanical Illustration is a genre of art that endeavours to faithfully depict and represent the form, colour and detail of a plant, identifiable to species or cultivar level.
Botanical illustrations mostly use dried and pressed herbarium specimens as references. Botanical illustrators spend long hours to accurately measure and study these specimens. Photography was invented in the 19th century, and early cameras were not very portable. Despite the introduction of advanced technologies capable of capturing even more precise details, photographs cannot provide explanations. Botanical illustrators use their judgement to emphasize the critical features of a plant. Isolating the different plant parts – stems and leaves – and fitting detailed cross-sectional views in one page together with descriptions of each figure, allow a clearer presentation and better understanding of the structure. Furthermore, they are not depicting any specific plant specimen, for instance they remove petal holes. Botanical illustration can be seen as an “abstraction of the individual plant”; that is the idea of it. The process involves inductive reasoning.
As such, today botanical illustrations continue to play a vital role in the documentation and identification of plants, perhaps more so in times of environmental change.
Visitors are welcome to come and view SCM 05980 British phaenogamous botany: or, Figures and descriptions of the genera of British flowering plants, 1834-43 and the other nature illustrations in Archives and Special Collections.
- SCD 00525 Flora Graeca
- SCH 00001 The Birds of Great Britain
- SCT 00324 Transactions of the Horticultural Society of London
- SCT 00534 An exposition of English insects : including the several classes of Neuroptera, Hymenoptera, & Diptera, or bees, flies, & Libellulae : exhibiting on 51 copper plates near 500 figures, accurately drawn, & highly finished in colours from nature
- SCM 06013 Illustrations of British Fungi (Hymenomycetes), to serve as an atlas to the “Handbook of British Fungi”