Patronage and the publication of botanical illustration

Editorial Staff Art

 By Bernadette G. Callery; from The Magazine ANTIQUES, August 1989.

Modern collections of botanical illustrations are treaty indebted to the patrons of the past, whose leisured curiosity and horticultural acquisitiveness enabled them to accumulate various “vegetable rarities,” and then to have those plants recorded in drawings or paintings from which published illustrations were prepared. Many of the surviving florilegia, or collections of flower illustrations, are records of the contents of specific gardens. many of the illustrators whose work is now collected earned their livelihood by documenting newly discovered or introduced plants nurtured in private gardens. The artist presented the proud owner, and sometimes his friends, with a plant portrait, usually in watercolor, and in some instances these illustrations were collected and published. Prior to publication it was not uncommon for an artist to prepare several copies of a particular illustration for different patrons.

The impetus and continuing support for the discovery, introduction, and documentation of exotic plants from the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries–many now familiar cultivated plants–came largely from three classes of patrons: the individual amateur botanist, the royal or governmental patron, and the scholarly institution. Many of the large color-plate collections of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were issued in parts over a period of time, with subscribers solicited to help defray the cost. Subscribers’ lists are valuable to collectors and bibliographers for their clues they give to the number of copies printed and for their hints as to where presentation copies with original watercolors or additional plates might be found. Serial publication and subscribers’ continuing payments eased the burden on the original patron but compounded the confusion of later collectors and bibliographers. A bound copy of any of these works encountered today does not guarantee completeness, as the parts were issued unbound and the subscriber was under no obligation to purchase all the parts or to have them bound in any prescribed order, particularly as plates were not necessarily issued in sequential order. Conversely, works apparently missing parts may have never been completed.

One source of much published French botanical art of the seventieth and eighteenth centuries was the collection des veins, an assemblage of watercolors on vellum begun by Gaston d’Orleans (1608 – 1660) and inherited by his nephew Louis XIV (1638 – 1715). Originally intended by Gaston d’Orleans as a record of his garden at Blois, one of the first private botanical gardens, these were record drawings of single species of various plants. With the encouragement of Louis XIV’s minister Jean Baptists Colbert (1619 – 1683), the collection was substantially enlarged with illustrations by Nicolas Robert and, in time, by such notable artists as Claude Aubriet, Gerard van Spaendonck (1746 0 1822), and Pierre Joseph Redouté. These men were employed under a variety of titles, including “peintre ordinaries de Sa Majeste pour la miniature” and professeur de peinture de flours,” to paint rarities flowering in the royal gardens. The work brought them to the attention of other potential patrons who commissioned copies of the artists’ work for their own collections or employed them as botanical drawing masters for members of their household. The collection des veins, a part of the Musée National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris since 1793, is a valuable source for the history of cultivated genera. Publication of these images was initiated by the Academie Royale des Sciences as early as 1667 with thirty-nine plates appearing in 1675 and 1676 under the title Memoires pour server a l’histoire des plants, published by the Imprimerie Royale. Engraved by Nicolas Robert and Abraham Bosse (1602 – 1676) from drawings by Robert, the illustrations are clearly based on living plants. In 1701, 319 engravings were published in three volumes without text as Recueil des plants (see Pls. III, VIII).1  The preface to the 1675- 1676 edition provides an insight into the problems of preparing an engraving for coloring:

Since printing in color is not employed yet, and since painters waste much time and are not always successful, we thought we could, in future, supply some extent what was lacking in an engraving, by taking care to indicate, as far as is feasible, the depth of the color.2

This technique of employing one to suggest density of color as well as shape can be seen to particular advantage by comparing colored and uncolored versions of the same work, the example in the infrequently encountered double-plate copies of Redouté’s Les roses (1817 – 1824) and Les liliacees (1802 – 1816). Much of the success of Redouté’s engravings has been attributed to his earlier experience of engraving his own drawings, with the result that his later watercolors were prepared with the engraver in mind

Claude Aubriet also contributed to the veins, although his most notable botanical illustrations are the plates accompanying Joseph Pitton de Tournefort’s Elemens de botanique of 1694, called Institutions Rei Herbariae in the 1700 and 1719 editions (see Fig. 2). The crisp line engravings are tidy dissections of plants chosen to illustrate points of Tournefort’s system of plant classification, which rivaled that of the now better known Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus.

Bail Besler’s Hotus eystettensis, originally published in Nuremberg in 1613, recorded plants in the garden of Johann Konrad von Gemmingen, the prince-Bishop of Eichstatt (see Fig. 3). Besler was a Nuremberg apothecary whose bold line engravings, done in calligraphic style, sometimes depict several plants on the same plate, many with roots, and are immediately recognizable for their scale and broad outlines. Although originally issued uncolored, modern reprints, particularly those reproduced in poster formats, are often made more salable with the dubious addition of hand coloring.

Originally trained as a gardener, Georg Dionysius Ehret was early employed by the Regensburg pharmacist Johann Weinmann’s Phytanthoza Iconographia, published in Regensburg between 1737 and 1745. A number of commissions from the Nuremberg doctor Christoph Jakob Trew (see Pls. I, II) enabled Ehret to leave what was increasingly ll-paid work for Weinmann. Ehret then traveled in various parts of Europe apparently making a regular and profitable practice of drawing any new plant he saw, particularly in private gardens, and then selling the drawings of a copy to the owner of the garden or his friends. Based on Ehret’s work down in England, George Clifford (1685 – 1760), a director of the Dutch East India Company and a keen collector of exotic plants, commissioned him to illustrate the plants in Clifford’s garden at Hartecamp, outside Leiden. In 1736 Ehret fell in with Linnaeus, creating the bulk of the illustrations of Linnaeus’s only sumptuously illustrated book, Hortus Cliffortianus, published in Amsterdam in 1737 (see Fig. 1). The illustrations Trew selected for reproduction in his Plantae Selectae were based on plants Ehret had drawn while in England–largely unknown and untasted exotics, including the pineapple and the banana (see over and Pl I). In later life Ehret became a fashionable teacher of botanical drawing to the English aristocracy, including Margaret Cavendish Harley (1714 – 1785), duchess of Portland,3 and Sir Hans Sloane (1660 – 1753), whose collections formed the basis of the British Museum collection. To many, Ehret’s original watercolors are the equal of Redouté’s, but his works suffered somewhat in translation to engravings, as stipple engravings, which proved so successful in reproducing Redouté’s watercolors, had not yet been developed in Ehret’s time.

Coming from a family of interior decorators and theatrical scene painters, Redouté was taught botanical painting by Gerard van Spaendonck at the Jardin du Roi in Paris. There he encountered Charles Louis du Roi in Paris. There he encountered Charles Louis L’Heritier de Brutelle (1746 – 1800), a keen amateur botanist and owner of large gardens of rarities in Paris and Picardy, who was determined to publish only new plants which were previously unillustrated. Redouté followed L’Heritier to London in 1787 and there met Sir Joseph Banks (1743 – 1820), the great promoter of British science, who was instrumental in developing Kew Gardens (later the Royal Botanic Gardens)into a scientific institution as well as a horticultural display garden. Many botanical artists visited these gardens to paint the newly established plants there. While in London, Redouté learned stipple engraving, in which the use of dots rather than line permits greater gradations of tone. In printing these engravings, the color was applied directly to the plate for each individual print pulled, which contributed to a particularly successful translation of Redouté’s watercolors. The idea of an illustrated book on the succulent plants., which did not make a successful herbarium specimens, originated with L’Heritier, although he did not live to complete the text for Plantarum Succulentarum Historia, with was the first of Redouté’s works to be illustrated entirely with color-printed stipple engravings (see Pl. XIV).

Redouté had among his pupils and patrons two queens and two empresses–a remarkable tribute to his diplomacy considering the turbulent times he lived in. He enjoyed almost continuous patronage and support from been Marie Antoinette (1755 – 1793), Empress Josephine (1763 – 1814), and Queen Marie Ameli (1782 – 1866), the wife of Louisphilippe. Redouté’s most popular works commemorate the horticultural preference of Empress Josephine. When she acquired Malmaison in 1798, shortly after her marriage to Napoleon, sh employed horticulturists to build an extensive collection of exotic plants, including material rough back from Napoleon’s Egyptian campaigns. Redouté recorded these plants in Jardin del a Malmaison (see pl. IX), Les liliacees (see Pls. IV, VII, X), and in Aime Bonpland’s Description des plants rates cultivees a Malmaison et a Navarre (see Pl. VI). While the engravings illustrating these works are printed in color, some of the presentation copies have plates enhanced with watercolor, presumably by Redouté himself. Like Ehret, Redouté also prepared watercolors on vellum for presentation and as the basis for later publication. Several of Redouté’s great flower books, particularly Les roses, have been debased through frequent and muddy reproduction in a variety of unsuitable mediums, but he is not in any real danger of being dismissed as a sentimental painter of sweetly depicted flowers.

In The Rhododendrons of Sikkim-Himalaya; being an account, botanical and geographical, of the rhododendrons recently discovered in the mountains of Eastern Himalaya, from drawings and descriptions made on the spot…, Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker documented the plants he had gathered for the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (see Pl. XV). The prints in the book are the first published illustrations of these rhododendrons. The text was edited by Sir William Jackson Hooker, then director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, based on notes his son sent back from India, and the hand-colored lithographs were executed by Walter Hood Fitch based on sketches by native artists, plant specimens, filed notes, and sketches, all sent back by Joseph Hooker. Much of the present horticultural stock of rhododendrons is based on the plants Hooker brought back from this expedition. Fitch often drew directly on the stone rather than always making a preliminary drawing.  The medium and his method make these illustrations less formal than the earlier engravings. Fitch popularized the use of lithography in Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, to which he contributed illustrations which are particularly notable for the amount of visual information presented in a compact yet intelligible way.

Several American works of illustrated botany were produced though the efforts of institutions. IN 1848, Joseph Henry (1797 – 1878), the first secretary of the Smithsonian institution, asked the American botanist Asa Gray to prepare a study of the economic uses of American forest trees. Gray chose Isaac Sprague as his draftsman and Joseph Prestele as his colorist and lithographer, sure of their attention to detail based on his prior work with them. After many delays, resulting from difficulties in preparing the lithographic stones and accommodating Gray’s changes in the illustrations, the work was finally published in 1891 in an edition of a few hundred with only twenty-three illustrations and no text (see Pls. XVI, XVII).4

More successful was Charles Sprague Sargent’s Silva of North America… of 1891 to 1902, prepared while the author was the first director of the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University (see Fig. 4). This catalogue of American trees ran to fourteen folio volumes with 749 engravings. the drawings of Charles Edward Faxon were admirably reproduced by the French engravers Philibert and Eugene Picart and are notable for the delicacy of shading and detail. The illustrations are uncolored, the black line being sufficient to convey the rich surface details of the chestnut husk as well as the fragile texture of the magnolia blossom.

Institutional affiliation was no guarantee of publication. For example only a few of the many watercolors of Eleanor Clarke have been published, and those long after they were rested in the 1930’s (see Pl. XI). 5 They were made to record the research into dallies by Arlow B. Stout (1876 – 1957), a plant geneticists at the NewYork Botanical Garden. Stout was particularly interested in extending the range of available colors in day lilies from the oranges and yellows to the reds, pinks, and purples, and the existence of these colors in the horticultural trade today is largely due to his work. Clarke’s watercolors were not intended as fine art and were snipped apart and reassembled b Stout to form part of a complete archival recorded of the creation of the modern red daylily. In 1941 subscribers sought to finance the publication of this research in a heavily illustrated monograph, but the project was dropped due to the lack of funds.

Patrons have supported the publication of botanical illustration either directly, or indirectly through the support of botanical exploration and botanical gardens. Such illustrations documents particular plant in a uniform fashion for botanists and horticulturists, and serve as an artistic record for the general public.

An exhibition entitled Nature’s Mirror: 200 years of Botanical Illustration is on display at the New York Public Library in New York City until September 2. 


1  The original copper engraving plates are now in the Musée du Louvre, Paris, and modern restricts from them are available, uncolored or hand colored, from the museum.

2  Quoted in Wilfrid Blunt, The Art of Botanical Illustration (London, 1951), pp. 111 – 112.

3  The duchess of Portland also befriended the naturalist Daniele Carlsson Sclander (1733 – 1782), another associate of Linnaeus’s, who had traveled with Captain Cook (1728 – 1779) and who catalogued the duchess’s natural history collection. Solander became the first keeper of the natural history department at the British Museum.

4  Prestele’s careful lithographic renderings of Sprague’s drawings include a number showing colored leaves of fruit superimposed on an uncolored outline of a larger arrangement of leads and branches. See Charles Van Ravenswaay, Drawn from Nature: The Botanical Art of Joseph Prestele and his Sons (Washington, D.C., 1894).

5  See A.B. Stout, Daylilies: The Wild Species and Garden Clones, Both Old and New, of the Genus Hemerocallis (Millwood, New York, 1986).