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Relationships and Abstraction 

 “A great flower not now to be expected: we have attained too high a degree of scientific truth; and the botanist counts the stamens after the painter and has no eye for picturesque grouping and lighting”


Conversations of Goethe with Eckermann, 1831. 

The symbiotic relationship between plants and other organisms reveals itself through reproduction and modification. Since the inception of the plant image, specimens have commonly been represented in isolation from their environment and the Linnean approach to taxonomic identification further sought to dissect and segregate the plant form. Botanical illustration has sought to portray the idealised specimen free from any effect by external forces and conforming to expectations of regularity and growth. Morphology has been explored through delineation of the external surface area of the plant thereby gravitating towards simplification of form and abstraction. 

Title page from Botanica in originali 

Nature Print 

Kniphof, Johann Hieronymus (1704-1763) 

Halæ Magdeburgicæ, 1758-61 

Image 27 Kniphof.jpg
Image 28 Terminalia 1.jpg
Image 29 Terminalia 2.jpg
Image 30 Terminalia 3.jpg

Terminalia chebula Willd. 

Artist unknown 

Published engraving and original illustration of Terminalia chebula Willd.,  


“The tender leaves, while scarce unfolded, are said to be punctured by an insect, and its eggs deposited therein, which by the extravasation of the sap, become enlarged into hollow galls of various shapes and sizes, but rarely exceeding an inch in diameter. They are powerfully astringent and make as good ink as oak galls.”
William Roxburgh, 'Flora Indica' ,1832

The original illustration is inscribed “Received 20th January 1791 from Houghton” referring to the East India Company ship which brought the paintings to London. It shows the insect (possibly the larvae) which acts on the plant. The published image omits this depiction.   

Image 31 Terminalia fruit.jpg
Image 32 Terminalia galls.jpg

Terminalia chebula Fruits (Cat No: 56751) and Galls (Cat No: 56759) India 

Economic Botany Collection, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew 

Fruit and Galls of Terminalia chebula from Kew’s Economic Botany Collection. The Galls are described as having been imported into London for tanning purposes under the name Myrobalan flowers. 

Image 33 Martius.jpg

Historia naturalis palmarum Karl Friedrich Philipp von Martius (1794-1868) 

In the second volume of Martius’s work the majority of the landscapes in which the palms are depicted are imaginary. (Hans Walter Lack

As well as the professional scholar, this publication gives consideration “to the amateur, for he finds in the plates the chief characteristics and forms of the universal primitive state, all represented in great variety. He sees isolated or grouped settlements and dwellings, situated on moist or dry, high or low land...Thus knowledge, imagination, and feeling are all stimulated and satisfied”  

Review by Goethe written and published in 1824 in Natural Science in General; Morphology in Particular (in Mueller)

Image 34 Linnaeus Systema Naturae.jpg

Plate from Linnaeus's Systema Naturae published in 1735 depicting a series of stamens which he described in reference to their male reproductive role as ‘husbands’.  

“In a black-and-white drawing is evident that the visual impression actually received... has been translated into a system of black marks on a white ground – marks which have no existence, as such, in Nature. This process is essentially symbolic and diagrammatic; it is an interpretation rather than a representation”

Agnes Arber

Watercolour on vellum of a flower of Amaryllis belladonna

being pollinated by a bee.  

Peter Brown (1770-1791)  

Image 35 Amaryllis.jpg
Image 36 Goethea.jpg

Goethea strictiflora Upright-Flowering Goethea 

Uncoloured lithograph and original illustration for Curtis’s Botanical Magazine Plate 4677 (1852) 

with a copy of the illustration made for Flore des serres et des jardins de l'Europe 

Walter Hood Fitch (1817-1892) 


“That it belongs to the genus Goethea (so named in honour of the great German poet, Goethe), as defined by Nees von Esenbeck and Martius, is clear...”  

Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, 1852

This series of images shows the practice of copying illustrations for use across botanical journals. Occasionally the illustration was edited, as can be seen in the plate for Flore des Serres where the figures for the flower and pistil have been moved to the bottom of the image. 

Image 37 Anna Atkins.jpg

Cystoseira granulata, cyanotype photogram of a species of Algae 

Anna Atkins (1799-1871) 


Morphology is realised in its purest form in the cyanotype; stripping away all distractions to emphasise the polarity of positive and negative space.  

“These cyanotypes are powerful early examples of the expressive potential of photography. Atkin’s uncluttered and direct vision, exploiting the photographic possibilities of natural forms, was unique to her generation...”

Larry John Schaaf 

Image 38-Juliet-Beentje.jpg
Image 39 -Hazel-Wilks.jpg

‘Tum Tum from Planet Lum’ - Inês Rebelo 

Line illustrations by Juliet Beentje and Hazel Wilks 

Pen and ink  

© Inês Rebelo, Juliet Beentje, and Hazel Wilks 


Illustrations for Inês Rebelo’s ‘Tum Tum from Planet Lum’ for the 2007 exhibition ‘What can a desert Island do?’ based on Gilles Deleuze's desert island allegory. Rebelo applied an empirical vocabulary to the description of an imaginary hybrid organism and commissioned several illustrators working at Kew to document it in the form of scientific line illustrations.


“This project makes visible the layers of interpretation and subjectivity in the process of scientific representation.”

Inês Rebelo

Image 40 Ixora.jpg

Ixora chinensis 

Artist unknown 

Watercolour of a Chinese ixora (Ixora chinensis) and a moth and cricket from William Jackson Hooker's Chinese Plants collection, acquired by Kew in 1867 after his death in 1865. 

Image 41 Opuntia.jpg

Cactus indicus R.,  

Watercolour on paper 

Artist unknown 


Roxburgh’s 'Flora Indica' describes this cactus as common to Calcutta and neighbouring districts and notes that “upon this plant the Cochineal insects lately brought from America, thrive and multiply abundantly.”

William Roxburgh, 'Flora Indica', 1832 


The illustration includes a study of these insects from which carmine dye is derived. Cochineal insects were imported to India by the British in 1788 in an attempt to break the monopoly held by Spain.  

Image 42 Drosera.jpg

Drosera longifolia with five beetles, 1774 

Watercolour on vellum  

Thomas Robins the younger (1743-1806) 


Goethe encountered Droseras in the bogs around Jena and independently observed the way they caught insects, before it was widely recognised. 

“We are accustomed to think of plants as being immobile and harmless, and there is something deeply unnerving about the thought of carnivorous plants.”  

Mark W. Chase et al  

The Night-Blowing Cerus, Cactus grandiflorus 
Mezzotint after a painting by Philip Reinagle (1749-1833) One of 31 plates for 'The Temple of Flora,' by Robert John Thornton, 1799-1804 

Thornton stipulated that the plants in his publication be portrayed against a natural background. In this case, Reinagle (better known as a portraitist and landscapist) has incongruously situated this Jamaican night-flowering cactus within a British churchyard while the clock on the church tower keeps the hour of midnight. 

Image 43 Night Flowering Cactus.jpg
Image 44 Dragon arum.jpg

Arum Dracunculus or Dragon Arum  

Mezzotint after a painting by Peter Henderson (d. 1829) 

For 'The Temple of Flora,' by Robert John Thornton, 1799-1804 


The entry by Thornton reads;

“This extremely foetid poisonous plant will not admit of sober description. Let us therefore personify it. She comes peeping from her purple crest with mischief fraught: from her green covert projects a horrid spear of darkest jet, which she brandishes aloft: issuing from her nostrils flies a noisome vapour infecting the ambient air...her sex is strangely intermingled with the opposite! Confusion dire! All framed for horror.” 

Image 45Helicteres.jpg
Image 46 Helicteres 2.jpg

Illustration entitled Helicteres from the Flora of Rio de Janeiro collection by Lady Maria Callcott (Maria Graham, nee Dundas) (1785-1842) and painting inscribed ‘Helicteres Drawn by B. Barker from my original sketch...’. 

Graham writes of her experience of nature during her time in Brazil; 

On climbing a hill we came across; 

“...the root of a huge old acacia, decorated with innumerable parasite plants, some of which cling like ivy to the trunk, and others climbing to the topmost boughs, fall thence in grey silky garlands... among these, many an ant or bee had fixed his nest, and everything was teeming with life and beauty” 

Journal of a voyage to Brazil. Friday March 1st, Noussa Senhora da Luz (nr. To Rio de Janeiro) 

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