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Blending compelling nature images with natural history narratives

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A History of Scientific Illustration
 
The recording of botany began in the form of words. Seeds were collected and plants were grown to describe verbally in books called herbals. Hippocrates, the father of medicine, (460-410 B.C.) is among the earliest of the Greeks who wrote of plants. Theophrastus of Eresius (370-286 B.C.), also Greek, has the title father of botany. The herbal produced by Theophrastus following Hippocrates was copied word for word by many botanists.

A reproduction of the first illustrations was costly. Each book was hand copied in pen and ink by scribes. Francesco Carrara, Lord of Padua, Italy in the late 14th century was one of the earliest pictorial herbals reproduced by scribes. The city of Padua still houses the oldest herbal collection in the world. It was not until the invention of the printing press that quantities of line illustrations were inserted into books by cutting the image onto wood, applying ink, and pressing the image. 

Sir Joseph Banks (1740-1820), a respected botanist and plant collector, initiated plant explorations funded by England. He became president of the Royal Society, now known as Royal Botanical Gardens Kew. His extensive library was used by many plantsmen (early botanists) of the day. Sir Joseph convinced the royal court to build a ship for him to sail the world in search of plants. The captain of this first ship, H.M.S. Endeavor 1768, was Captain James Cook (1728-1799). Banks selected a Swedish botanist/naturalist Dr. Daniel Solander (1733-1782), and a Scottish born artist and draughtsman Sidney Parkinson (1745-1771) for that first voyage. Parkinson would collect plants, and draw sketches in graphite. While sailing to the next island he would draw a pen and ink from his notes and specimen, then wash watercolor to record the color. Parkinson died on the way back never to see his illustrations in print. Solander later sold some of them back to Banks and Parkinsonís brother published the rest. Because Parkinson was not a botanist, many of the works were incorrectly labeled and were not revised before printing, so all publications were discounted. This maiden voyage by England marked an era that would bring about the most famous and scrupulous plant collectors, traders as well as some of the most fabulous botanical artists. England eventually sent Cook and others to collect and record plant life all over the world. 

Dutch born, Pierre Joseph Redouteí (1759-1840) was one of the most celebrated botanical artists of all time. He is accredited with developing the widely used method of hand colored stipule engraving of early botanicals. The image is etched onto copper plate, ink is applied, run through a press and each image is then hand painted using watercolor. Redouteí came from a family of theatre set designers, which brought him to Paris where he met Gerard von SpaŽndonck (1746-1822). SpaŽndonck was in charge of producing a collection of flower paintings for Bonaparteís royal collection. At the time there was a new technique developing whereby objects on a page were painted to give them the appearance of coming off the page. Realism in depth was never before achieved with such accuracy. Redoute learned to draw plants accurately from live and dried specimens, and learned the new methods of painting in watercolor that created depth and form.

Mark Catesby (1682-1749) traveled from England to the Americas to depict the life of early Americans. John Lindley (1799-1865), a botanical artist as well, started as assistant in Sir Joseph Banks library, translating books later to hold prominent posts as Professor of botany and editor of the Botanical Register. Pennsylvania born naturalist John Bartram (1699-1777) later son William Bartram (1739-1823) collected seed and plants for export to England, William was also an accomplished illustrator.  Bartram supplied growing instructions on delivery to Peter Collinson (1694-1768), an English merchant and fellow of The Royal Botanical Society. Collinson built an elaborate garden and hothouse in the country to grow then sell American plants to the elite of English society. Clients in England could order boxes of seed that contained one hundred American tree and shrub varieties paying five guineas each (a little less than 50 USD today).

During the Victorian era exploration became so common because the elite of society craved for the most unusual plants.  Plant breeding exploded, and vast conservatories were constructed to hold the plant oddities. Young ladies were taught flower painting as something to do in the afternoon. Many excellent painters came out of this period and set the course for the acceptance of women in science. The earliest female botanical illustrationists received no credit, and in turn very little payment. 

William Curtis (1746-1799), the famous publisher of Curtisís Botanical Magazine, employed hundreds female artists and paid them pennies for the high quality received. Miss. S.A. Drake (1803-1857) illustrated many of John Lindleyís issues of the Botanical Register as well as Batemanís Flora of Mexico and Guatemala between 1830-1840.

While most women hired to illustrate did so from conservatories and dried specimens, Margaret Ursula Mee (1909-1988) broke out of the box. She traveled from her home in England to the Amazon. Margaret first taught, and then became the botanical artist at Instituto Botanica in San Paulo, Brazil. One of the first institutes established in South America. Her plant explorations and collections produced three books on Amazonian flora.

Today, illustrations are produced with the use of graphite field sketches, and color recording. Scientific publications are still created in pen and ink with scale bars. All mediums are currently used in publications like Curtisí Botanical Magazine.

 

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