A Virtual Exhibition
Curated for The Philosophical Life of Plants Project: a research network funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council
All shapes are similar, yet all unlike,
The chorus thus a hidden law reveals.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) is best known as a poet and writer but he also made a significant contribution to the natural sciences and in particular to plant morphology (the study of the external structure and physical form of plants). In the field of botany, he drew influence from the groundbreaking work of Swedish taxonomist Carl Linnaeus and from the German Naturphilosophie approach to nature, though his scientific practice found fault with both modes of thought. Like Aristotle before him, Goethe believed that the plant form should be studied holistically and that the whole should be considered in its relation to each part.
This online exhibition takes Goethe’s botanical philosophy as a catalyst for plant thinking. Using his 1790 publication The Metamorphosis of Plants as a starting point, it diverges into four themes centred on plant morphology and explores the concept of the type, surface and depth, relationships and abstraction, and the spatial and temporal implications of vegetal scale. Using material from the Library and Archives and associated collections of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, it examines the multifaceted sensorial experience of plant interactions over the 18th and 19th Centuries and how they were manifested within the field of botany and beyond.
More information about The Philosophical Life of Plants Project, and related articles, can be found on the Project page.
Material in this online exhibition has been curated by Julia Buckley - Research Assistant to the Project, and draws on content from the Library and Archives, Economic Botany Collection, Spirit Collection, and Herbarium Collection of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, with particular emphasis on the Library and Illustrations Collections.
All images © copyright of the Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew unless otherwise stated.
Other exhibits, where contributed by individual creators, are described accordingly.
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Section of illustration featured in header entitled Acer pictum from the Mary Maitland (Mrs George Govan) collection c.1823-1832
Watercolour on paper