Surface and Depth
“We are convinced that with a little practice it would not be difficult to explain...the manifold forms of fruits and flowers. All that is requisite is to be able to work out the aforenamed ideas of expansion and contraction, approximation and anastomosis [cross connection] as easily as we work out rules of algebra, and to know how to apply them in their proper places”
The 18th and 19th centuries saw a furious expansion in the global exploration and trade of plants to the western world accompanied by a demand for artists to visually document plants in the name of scientific and economic endeavour. India saw the establishment of a number of botanical gardens in the service of the East India Company and artists were recruited to illustrate the specimens growing there. Chinese artists responded to a burgeoning export market for plants with the production and dissemination of botanical paintings through trading ports. A visual language was established in the service of European botanists which met with the traditions of Indian and Chinese artists, fusing style and approach. Emanating from the discipline of Mughal art, the botanical illustrations of Indian artists were characterized by a two dimensionality which featured dynamic lines and the use of a layered paint technique to achieve a ‘passionate delineation’ (Mildred Archer) in subtlety of depth. The Chinese tradition of natural illustration in decoration made an easy transition into the field of botany and resulted in works of a distinctive style with the application of a soft line and gentle form.
Section of illustration in heading from Tab 175 Daemonorops lewisiana Historia naturalis palmarum Karl Friedrich Philipp von Martius (1794-1868)
Part of a plate featuring palm fruits of the Rattan palm subfamily.
“the growing plant brings forth manifold arithmetical and geometrical patterns, on which the botanist bases his recognition of plant family and type.”
Wax orchid model of Vanda coerulea
Edith Delta Blackman (1868-1947)
Part of a set of 26 models commissioned by Sir William Thiselton Dyer (1843-1928), Director of Kew from 1885-1905, and copied from Kew’s living collections.
Bombax from the William Kerr (-d.1814) collection of Chinese plants, painted by an unknown artist.
Watercolour on paper
Kerr was originally a Kew gardener before travelling abroad to collect plants for Kew, including in Canton.
Magnolia seeds (Magnolia grandiflora) by Jean Gabriel Prêtre (fl.1800-1840) 1822
Watercolour on paper
The illustration includes a cross-section of the seeds.
“Asleep within the seed the power lies.
Foreshadowed pattern, folded in the shell,
Root, leaf, and germ, pale and half-formed.
The nub of tranquil life, kept safe and dry,”
Honzo zufu = [Illustrated manual of medicinal plants]
Iwasaki, Kanʼen (1786-1842)
Published in Japan (1828-1844, 1884)
In the swelling of the fruit we find “...for the first time the higher plant, in the shoot, attains a predominately convex form of growth...”
“The living sphere grows, drinking in water and other substances at the expense of its surroundings. This is the primary phenomenon of convex, outward growth. We find it in the microscopic, cellular organization of all living and growing things, including of course the higher plant –root, shoot and leaf without exception. But the cellular growth is here subservient to macroscopic forms of life, visible to the naked eye and more significantly diverse.”
Nelumbium speciosum Willd., watercolour on paper
Watercolour illustration commissioned by William Roxburgh (1751 – 1815).
In 'Flora Indica', Roxburgh describes this species: "...the leaf is of a beautiful pea-green colour and of a very soft velvet-like texture; underneath is a cuticle which is frequently of turgid red, covering innumerable small vescicles, these render the leaves specifically lighter than water... The seeds are eaten raw, roasted or boiled. The leaves are used to eat off instead of plates. These holy and beautiful plants are often met with in the religious ceremonies of the Hindoos under their Sanscrit name Padma."
Illustration of Butomus umbellatus, 1763.
Georg Dionysius Ehret (1708-1770)
Gouache on vellum
The artist Georg Ehret worked with Carl Linnaeus to illustrate Hortus Cliffortianus (1738) which featured plants growing in the botanical garden of George Clifford (1685-1760) a rich Amsterdam banker and a director of the Dutch East India Company.
“Ehret’s flowers inhabit the venn overlap – the intersection – of art and science.”
Nature print of Petasites japonicus subsp. Giganteus
Keisuke Ito (1803-1901)
The largest nature print in the collection at Kew.
“We are apt to think of mathematical definitions as too strict and rigid for common use, but their rigour is combined with all but endless freedom. The precise definition of an ellipse introduces us to all the ellipses in the world...”
Hand coloured engraving for ‘Delineations of exotic plants cultivated in the Royal Gardens at Kew’, 1796 - 1803
Franz Bauer (1758-1840)
This species was introduced by Francis Masson from South Africa in 1774.
“The concept of metamorphosis is a highly estimable gift from above, but at the same time a highly dangerous one. It leads to formlessness, destroys knowledge, disintegrates it...I am referring to the specification force, that tenacious capacity for persistence inherent in whatever has attained existence, a centripetal force that cannot be disturbed in its deepest nature by anything external. We refer the reader to the genus Erica.”
Goethe – Printed in Natural Science in General: Morphology in Particular, 1823 (in Mueller)
Watercolour on paper
Wallich Collection Kew. Received. Oct. 17. 1828.
“When the bricklayer builds a factory chimney, he lays his bricks in a certain steady, orderly way, with no thought of the spiral patterns to which this orderly sequence inevitably leads, and which spiral patterns are by no means “subjective”...
Ferdinand Bauer (1760-1826)
Hand coloured engraving for Flora Graeca, Volume 6: t. 549 (1826)
Goethe greatly admired the work of Ferdinand Bauer and praised his drawings for ‘A description of the genus Pinus’(1803-1824) by Aylmer Bourke Lambert eulogizing “Nature is visible, Art Concealed”. He compared their lifelike character with less favourable flat and pattern like illustrations of other artists.