Many times it is assumed that botanical art and illustrations are performed without reference to the living plant. Historically, the illustrations of the Herbals were in fact performed by monks in monasteries. These copyists would rely on books previously created for their new illustrations thus creating inferior illustrations often lacking in appropriate identification. The age of exploration brought specimens to the fingertips of the naturalist, the botanist and the artist. Direct observation became the norm and a wealth of correctly depicted botanical art was one important by-product. Today, we are fortunate to have botanic gardens filled with living specimens from all parts of the world and to follow in the footsteps of our 17th century forefathers who relied on the empirical basis of botanical science to accurately portray the study of living plants.
The American Colonies founded between 1607 and 1732 were a haven for naturalists, such as Mark Catesby, interested in obtaining information about new and important plants. His acquaintance with the naturalist John Ray led to exploration of the Carolinas and the creation of his two volume study Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands in which he discusses how the benefits of drawing from direct observation far outweigh drawing from dried specimens and with such empirical methods how the environmental relationships of fauna and flora can be learned.
This view of direct observation was held by many of the period. Cadwallader Colden, (1688-1776) considered by many as the Benjamin Franklin of New York, was born in Scotland and trained as a physician in Edinburgh. He found his way to the American Colonies in 1710, first in Philadelphia and finally New York. He made critical inquiry and response to matters of politics, science medicine, and philosophy. After achieving great heights in the American Colonies he retired to his home in Long Island, New York where he corresponded from 1710 till his death with the most prominent scientific men of his time taking special interest in botany and passing this interest along to his daughter, Jane who had begun her studies of botanical art illustration. Colden was the first to introduce the Linnaean system into America and furnished to Linnaeus an account of almost 400 American plants.
In a letter to Peter Collinson (1694-1768 an English businessman with an interest in botany who financed the travels of John Bartram in the Americas to procure New World seeds for his English clients), Colden conveys his belief that illustrating from live plants is the best course of study. In the absence of the living specimen he suggests reference to Tournefort’s Institutiones Herbariae and Morison’s Historia Plantarum.
Historia Plantarum is the name of a survey of botany written by Theophrastus (the father of natural sciences and of botany in particular) between the third and the second century BC. This work was organized in ten books, and is an encyclopedia of the
John Ray (1627-1705) an English naturalist, sometimes referred to as the father of English natural history authored other important works on plants, animals, and natural theology, but it was his classification of plants in his Historia Plantarum that took an important step towards the practice and science of classification of living things (taxonomy.)
What is particularly interesting about botanical art depiction that describes the environmental relationships of fauna and flora is that it gives the viewer a reference to where and how the subjects interacted. If we study why work was executed in this fashion a little further, we learn that this kind of information was of great importance to agricultural development. The emphasis was on collecting relevant information through this study and not art for art sake.
Therein has always been the critique of botanical art – placing it in the realm of science and barring it from the category of fine art. As our botanical art awareness unfolds, we cannot help to see the beauty as well as the importance of botanical art. The world is ever changing. With climate, foresting, natural disasters, etc., our delicate environment faces continual evolution. The need for botanical study continues, and will always continue. What is all the more exciting is the fact that there are many botanical artists today whose skill far surpasses our earlier efforts and this fact alone is a delightful anticipation of what is yet to come.