Science and art are basically just different ways people respond to the world around them. Sure, they’re done in different ways – art is emotional, science is logical – but the boundaries can often blur.
Take botanical illustration, for example. Speaking technically (something botanists do), botanical illustration and botanical art are actually two different approaches to depicting plants. Botanical illustration is the scientific way. When recording a plant for later study, illustrators show as many angels of each specimen as possible. When necessary, roots, fruits, flowers, and cross-sections are included in the drawing as well, arranged around the main image. These illustrations provide botanists with a standard, reliable way of identifying species of plant across the world.
Botanical art on the other had, can be pretty much any artwork that features plants – particularly flowers. Often the purpose here is to delight the viewer while showcasing the artist’s skill. Flowers and leaves can be ornamental or symbolic.
There’s no need for the sort of exacting accuracy here that there is in botanical illustration.
Still, the two approaches aren’t exactly opposites – after all, there are only so many ways a plant may be presented realistically.
While botanical illustration may be primarily a scientific tool, the resulting works can be gorgeous. And botanical art, while usually intended for pleasurable viewing can still be the result of exhaustive observation and attention to detail.
Lets take the examples of two eighteenth century figures to demonstrate.
First is Ferdinand Bauer. Today the realism of his illustrations is still striking. It’s easy to imaging Bauer tucked away hour after hour, making meticulous adjustments to his images to match the specimens before him. But however painstaking his work was, his life was full of adventure.
Bauer’s career began when he met British Scientist John Sibthorp, who was on a mission to update a 700-year-old book. The book in question was the herbal of Dioscorodes, which is a collection of the various plants that Greek botanist Dioscorodes had encountered in his travels around Greece and the Middle East.
Along with general descriptions of the plants, the herbal also contained useful information about their medicinal uses. So useful, in fact, that the text remained standard reference for doctors and botanists into the 1500’s. Still, a lot of the finer points and identifications had been lost in the years since the herbal’s first publication, and it was Sibthorp’s idea to rectify this.
When Bauer met Sibthorp in 1785, the world of botany was rapidly changing and expanding – it was the ideal time to recollect the relevant plants. Only around 40 years earlier, a new system of taxonomy had been set in place. This meant that botanists could avoid the long, complicated descriptive names, such as the tallest Magnolia with a leaf of laurel and a huge white flower of Catesby (this was an actual name). And at the same time, European explorers were still happening upon unknown corners of the world. Bauer himself would be present on the first expedition to circumnavigate Australia.
But first he would go to Greece and the Middle East with Sibthorp.
What resulted from this expedition was the Flora Graeca. Bauer’s illustrations accompanied descriptions of each specimen.
Because of this book, the owners of English gardens started wanting Greek plants for themselves, leading to the introduction of several species as garden favorites: the cyclamen and the Golden Yellow Crocus.
But the British garden, even before the introduction of these species, was a place for botanical interest. And this is where our second figure of the eighteenth century comes into play.
Mary Delany was already grown up by the time Bauer started working. Born in 1700 to a relatively well-to-do family, she married a wealthier man, who soon died leaving her with a pile of money. She lived happily unmarried for 19 years, reading writing, visiting gardens, enthusing over various fashion trends, visiting royalty, sewing and so on. Eventually she remarried for love and, for another 25 years, lived happily with her husband. Then, her second husband died as well.
It was only then, in her early 70’s, that Delany started her work on flowers. Using black paper as a background she started meticulously producing hundreds of delicate paper mosaics of the flowers she found around her garden. It wasn’t just the general shape she wanted to capture – it was the texture and the colour. She tried to imitate these using different kinds of paper, layering sheets of colours to make different tones and even incorporating bits of the actual plants into her work.
Working with paper was a fashionable pursuit for ladies of the court like herself and her friends, but her works are particularly interesting for their care and attention to detail, as well as for the age of their creator and the sheer number of them – by the time of her death at age 88 she had created almost 1,000 images.
So which do you prefer? The funny little mosaics? Or the powerful tributes to scientific accuracy?
Each is produced for totally different purposes. Not only were Bauer’s illustrations produced with complete seriousness, they were also meant to bring him and his collaborators a profit. There’s no evidence that Delaney produced her mosaics for any purpose other than her own entertainment.
But isn’t it interesting that in seeking on the one hand to entertain and on the other to inform, deceptive images are created? Neither shows the plants as they really are. Instead it shows them in some perfect imaginary state – suitable for both science and art.
— For more information on this topic, check out Martyn Rix’s book, The Golden Age of Botanical Art, which informed a lot of my research for this post.
This is the second post in my ART AND SCIENCE mini series. Catch up with the other posts here: