Beckler's Botanical Bounty Botanic Art

“Botanic artists make science visible”

“Botanic artists make science visible.” That’s not just a quote from my friend and tutor, Mali Moir, but also a tenant of her art work. Drop over to her website to see the beautiful work that she does.

Last week was National Science Weekend I thought I would draw out the connection between botanic art and science a little more.

As a genre botanic art is more than flower paintings or still life. The main goal of a painting is scientific accuracy so that the plant can be recognised and distinguished from other species. However, it is an art form and should be as visually pleasing as possible. The elements of all good paintings, especially composition, very important. I like the way that it is expressed on the Botanic Gardens Conservation International’s website

Many great artists, from the seventeenth-century Dutch masters to the French Impressionists, such as Monet and Renoir, to modernists like Georgia O’Keeffe, portrayed flowers; but since their goal was aesthetic, accuracy was not always necessary or intended. In the hands of a talented botanical artist, however, the illustration goes beyond its scientific requirements.

The Golden Age of botanic art was at the time of the great explorations, when the world was being opened up. Voyages usually included naturalists and artists, who had the responsibility to collect and record the flora and fauna that were seen in these new lands. There was always the search for the next big thing, like tea, and spices. It was this search that drove many expeditions. After the expedition collected plant specimens were eventually housed in herbaria, only available to a few. The paintings of plants could be printed into books which were more accessible.

Not co-incidentally it was the time of many important developments in science. Linnaeus had revolutionised the botanic and zoological worlds by creating a classification system that worked at all levels. It allowed the newly discovered plants and animals to be systematically collected and recorded.

The botanists and artists were an important part of the voyages that were being made. There have been many fine botanic artists over the centuries, but I will show you two.

Sydney Parkinson accompanied Joseph Banks on Cook’s voyage in the Endeavour in 1770. Parkinson died of dysentery on the journey, but back in England his illustrations were used to create Bank’s Florilegium. He was also the first European to create images of Australian Aborigines. Unfortunately there was a lengthy dispute between Banks and Parkinson’s brother on the return to London.

When the Endeavour returned to England in 1772, a dispute arose between Joseph Banks and Sydney’s brother, Stanfield Parkinson. As his employer, Banks claimed rights to Sydney’s drawings, papers and collections made on the voyage. Stanfield claimed that Sydney had willed them to his family. Banks lent the Parkinson family Sydney’s journal and drawings with instructions that they were not to be published, however Stanfield disregarded this and arranged for A Journal of a voyage to the South Seas to be printed from Sydney’s account of the voyage. Banks managed to suppress Stanfield’s publication until the official account of the voyage, edited by John Hawkesworth, appeared. In return for Parkinson’s papers, Banks paid Stanfield Parkinson 500 pounds for balance of wages due to Sydney, but the dispute did not end there. Stanfield further accused Banks of retaining items collected by Sydney which were intended for his relatives. Stanfield Parkinson was declared insane soon after the publication of Sydney Parkinson’s Journal and died in an asylum. [From the NSW State Library]

By Sydney Parkinson and John Frederick Miller [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The accurate detail from Parkinson’s painting of Banksia ericifolia allows the plant to be distinguished from other Banksia species.

The second botanic artist is Ferdinand Bauer.  He was the artist on Matthew Flinders’ expedition of 1801 in the Investigator, to survey the coast of New Holland. Bauer worked with the naturalist Robert Brown. Flinders had orders to allow them time on land to do their work and they were given a specially constructed room on the ship to house their specimens. Unfortunately the ship was leaky and damp.

Bauer wan’t able to complete his paintings on board because of the mould and damp. He created intricate colour charts that helped him to work on the paintings back in England. He stayed in Australia for a couple of years after the voyage, bringing home over 2,000 drawings.

By Ferdinand Bauer (1760–1826) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Look at the amazing detail that Bauer has achieved in his Banksia coccinea.

Naturally botanic art has changed over time. Perhaps the Art has become more prominent than the Science. But there are still many artists who do the detailed dissections and microscopic work. It is not something that I am very good at but I love to marvel at the work of those who can. Even without the microscopic detail the art work aims to have the identifying features of the plant. Jump over to the website of the Botanic Art Society of Australia to see some beautiful modern botanic art, such as Helina Steele’s stunning eucalypts.

And so to the question of photography. I’m sure you have been wondering why do we still need to identify plants from paintings when photography is so good these days. There are some artists, like Niki Simpson, who use digital photos to create works of art.

It is true that many identifications would be done through photographs, although examination of the real thing would be best of all. Art has a few advantages. Again, let me quote from the Botanic Gardens Conservation International

Although photography and perhaps particularly microscopic photography, may help inform botanical work, there is certainly still a need for botanical illustration because it can represent clearly what may not easily be seen in a photograph. Outline drawings for example, distinguish elements that cannot easily be made out using reflected light alone. Also, the composition of the image can be manipulated more fully in illustration, and features displayed together which may not easily be shown simultaneously in nature.

While much of my work that I have been showing you lately isn’t true botanic art. So I will leave you with one of mine. It is a plant I have painted as part of a project, Beckler’s Botanical Bounty, a project that has a strong scientific component.

Cullen pallidum (image and photo copyright: Anne Lawson, 2014)
Cullen pallidum (image and photo copyright: Anne Lawson, 2014)

2 replies on ““Botanic artists make science visible””

That was a really interesting read – loved seeing the old prints! So interesting also that it’s BAnks who got to name things whilst others did the hard work of illustrating them!


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