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Mitchell Primula

Primula © Brenda Mitchell 2012

Botanical illustration has a long tradition in both the arts and sciences and is currently enjoying a resurgence in popularity with artists and collectors.

The earliest botanical illustrations date back thousands of years. Walls on the temple of Thutmos III at Karnak, Egypt, include drawings of 275 plants found on a campaign to Syria and date from about 1500 BC. Greeks and Romans interested in the natural sciences also made botanical records.

One of the earliest practical uses of botanical illustration was for identifying plants with medicinal properties. Drawings were gathered in books called herbals and used by physicians in plant-based medicine. The first known herbal, De Materia Medica, was written by a Greek military physician, Pedanius Dioscorides, in the first century. It continued in use for almost two thousand years. An early illustrated version in the Byzantine style dates to AD 512.

Botanical drawings were also important in the age of discovery. European explorers returned from their voyages to far corners of the world with thousands of plant and seed samples. European landowners were able to cultivate a wide new range of plants for their gardens, and some commissioned botanical artists to help catalogue, document and publish their burgeoning collections.

MNK turban squash

Turban Squash © Marguerite Nault-Kubera 2008

An example is the collaboration between the Empress Josephine and Pierre Joseph Redouté (1759–1840), perhaps the best-known botanical illustrator. Josephine commissioned Redouté to record her vast collection of plants and flowers in her gardens at Malmaison. Redouté produced almost 500 watercolours, and a number of these, with accompanying text, were published as a book, Les Liliacees. The book ultimately was sold for US$5 million at Sotheby's in the 1980s, making it the most expensive book ever sold in North America.

For the past two hundred years, the centre of plant science, conservation and botanical illustration has been the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, near London, England. Since their early eighteenth century origins, Kew's gardens have spread to 300 acres and their living collection of plants is the largest in the world, with representatives of about one in eight plant species. Kew has always promoted the art of botanical illustration and chooses an artist each year as the recipient of its gold medal, the highest accolade for a botanical illustrator.

In North America, the hub for botanical illustrators is the Hunt Institute, part of the Carnegie Melon University in Pittsburgh, PA. The Hunt's collection includes over 30,000 botanical illustrations, and it always has an interesting exhibition open to the public.

What to collect now, if you're interested in historical botanical illustrations? Don't trouble to look for a Redouté, unless you're willing to write a very large cheque. Much more affordable are hand-coloured engravings from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by illustrators such as Curtis, Sowerby and Fitch. They all contributed to the Curtis Botanical Magazine, which has been published for over 200 years. You can usually find affordable, hand-coloured engravings in antique stores specializing in old maps and prints of various kinds.

Nowadays, some botanical gardens around the world employ illustrators, but magazines tend to use photographs. Painters interested in botanical illustration are likely to be working on their own, for pleasure. They may use a wider range of materials than their predecessors – colour pencil and sumi ink have been added to the traditions of watercolour and pen and ink – but the hallmarks of their work continue to be accuracy in form and colour and attention to detail.

Botanical Artists of Canada