Support Hyperallergic’s independent arts journalism.
Botanical Sketchbooks, out May 9 from Princeton Architectural Press, features 275 illustrations of flora from around the world, dating from the 15th to 20th century. Published in association with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, the book highlights rare works from the institution’s collections, as well as other museums, archives, and libraries. Although there are familiar names like National Parks promoter John Muir with his sketches of mountains and trees of the Sierra Nevadas, and even Leonardo da Vinci with an illustration of flowering violas alongside a diagram for a lead roof covering, authors Helen and William Bynum also highlight lesser-known botanical artists.
For instance, poet Percy Shelley’s sisters Hellen and Margaret created more than 200 paintings of the plants around their Field Place home in Sussex, while Charles Maries was a 19th-century English botanist obsessed with the mangoes of India. He planned a book on the fruit during his time in India that was never published, and is now part of the Kew archives. Beatrix Potter, best known for her early 1900s Peter Rabbit stories, is represented by delicate fungi illustrations from her mycological passion. Divided into four sections, from “Made on Location” to “Doing Science,” Botanical Sketchbooks offers brief biographies of over 80 illustrators along with examples of their work, photographed so you can see the weathered pages or scraps of paper on which the specimens were depicted.
“Before the late 18th century sketchbooks were generally bespoke items, but artists have also made their marks on writing pads, account books, field notebooks, school exercise books, vellum, loose sheets of paper, sometimes pasted or bound into albums, partly worked manuscripts, letters, herbarium sheets and as marginalia,” write the Bynums in an introduction. “Carl Linnaeus drew on the back of an envelope and Mark Catesby on a playing card — reminders that for each carefully prepared session, people also improvised and used whatever was available.”
The authors note that as these sketchbooks were usually preparatory work for illustrations, or accompanied scientific field notes, they weren’t often saved. Some have been disappeared over the years, such as the British flowering plant drawings by Mary Anne Stebbing burned in an 1881 house fire, and some are near losses, like the papers of naturalist William Griffith that were simply discarded in the East India Company’s basement. Those that survive often convey ephemeral moments of the seasons and environments that today are changed. Whether William Swainson’s 19th-century pencil drawings of New Zealand trees in the midst of 19th-century colonization, Conrad Gesner’s 16th-century illustrations detailing plants from root to seed, or Shafi’ ‘Abbásí’s 17th-century compositions that merged Mughal descriptions with European flora, Botanical Sketchbooks demonstrates the diverse ways the fleeting lives of plants have been observed, studied, and immortalized in art.