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Illustration and Representation

In the unsigned preface to Franz Bauer’s Delineations of Exotick Plants Cultivated in the Royal Garden at Kew (1796), Joseph Banks (1743–1820) wrote of the plates, which are accompanied by no text except their Linnaean names:

It will appear singular at first sight, that engravings of plants should be published without the addition of botanical descriptions of their generic and specific characters; but it is hoped that every botanist will agree, when he has examined the plates with attention, that it would have been a useless task to have compiled, and superfluous expense to have printed, any kind of explanation concerning them; each figure is intended to answer itself every question a botanist can wish to ask, respecting the structure of the plant it represents; the situation of leaves and flowers are carefully imitated, and the shape of each is given in a magnified, as well as in a natural size.

Banks’s assertion would appear to be proof enough of the importance of images in eighteenth-century botanical books. They could fully satisfy the questions of any botanist, with no text necessary whatsoever. The plates were, in effect, authentic stand-ins for the herbarium specimens they resembled. But what of the contemporary impulse, which Brian J. Ford sees in the work of John Ray, to do away with images altogether? “There was a growing belief that the student of high science needed no pictures to enlighten the mind,” Ford writes. The new classification systems were so precise that a reader should be able to visualize the plant being described without the crutch of an image. This may have been the case for some scholars (especially those who could not afford to illustrate their books) but it was certainly not universally true. Images were often critical to a project’s success, both as a work of scholarship and as a financial undertaking. This was especially the case when a publication was meant to bring prestige to its patron, for example in the publications of Louis XIV’s Imprimerie, or such works as the Hortus Cliffortianus.

Brian Ogilvie writes about the sixteenth-century dynamic between Otto Brunfels and Leonhart Fuchs: whereas Brunfels would depict a specific plant that might have rotting leaves or a crooked stem, thus proving that he had really seen the original, Fuchs instead depicted the idea of the plant, with different morphological features that might in fact never be visible at the same time of year. Which is more “real”? In the eighteenth century, Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison argue, scientists found the Fuchsian exemplar more useful than a replica of a unique plant with all of its anomalies. These debates mattered because in many cases scholars would never see the living plants in the field. Exploration, conquest, and trade meant that plants from Asia, the Americas, and Africa could be considered side-by-side in gardens, in herbaria, or on the pages of books.

How did people see plants? Dried specimens, one potential substitute for observing plants in the field or in a garden, could survive the seasons and could be collected in the field for later study. On the other hand, drawings and paintings could capture botanical information that a dried specimen lacked by means of showing the plant at different points in its life cycle. Finally, engravings could be disseminated in books and were therefore critical to scientific communication. None of these means of representation was more authentic than another, and all were integral to the study of plants.

Furthermore, there were usually intermediaries translating the specimen into an image, whether it was the artist who painted the picture, the engraver who transferred it to a copper plate, or the colorist, who may or may not have had accurate instructions about which colors to add. Daniela Bleichmar demonstrates the importance of an image’s veracity in the context of a vast empire. It was difficult to transport living plants and herbarium specimens, so often the best method of capturing information was a drawing produced in the field. José Celestino Mutis, who led Spain’s Royal Botanical Expedition to New Granada, wrote:

If I am not deceived by my own passion . . . I can promise myself that any image coming from my hands will not need any retouching by those who come after me, and any botanist in Europe will find represented in it the finest characters of fructification, which are the a-b-c of science—of botany in the Linnaean sense—without the need to come see them in their native ground.

Mutis was fortunate to have illustrators available to him in the field. The importance of herbarium specimens was not diminished, however, since many expeditions would send them back to Europe for publication. The fervor to publish images first—exemplified by the cloak-and-dagger antics of the Dombey Affair, in which a French collector backed out of a contract with Spain and his specimens were subsequently transported to England for publication—demonstrates the value of such specimens. 

Authors, of course, wanted the best possible images, but they could be hindered by cost and by the availability of illustrators. Mark Catesby famously taught himself to engrave in order to avoid the expense of employing professionals, a measure that also kept the prints faithful to his observations from the field. In some cases, authors sought out subscribers to subsidize the cost of images. The names of subscribers might be given a place of prominence in the image itself, as we see for example in Thomas Shaw’s Travels (1738) or John Martyn’s Historia plantarum rariorum (1728). On the other hand, when cost was no object, each image might be printed on its own folio sheet, perhaps in color à la poupée, with hand-coloring added after printing.

Although the production of a manuscript may not have resonated through the Republic of Letters in the same way as a printed book, it is still worthwhile to consider the variety of methods in which people practiced botanical illustration. At the highest end, there were manuscripts such as those produced by Balthasar Cattrani, designed to glorify the garden at Malmaison and his patron, Eugène de Beauharnais. These were presentation pieces painted on vellum by one of the finest illustrators of the era. Another sort of botanical painting is represented by several albums of Asian fruits and flowers, held by Dumbarton Oaks but bearing a striking resemblance to similar items in other libraries. These were produced in batches by workshops of artists, whose names are mostly unknown, to serve as botanical souvenirs for employees of the British East India Company. Finally, in Italy, we have the fascinating example of Aloysio Cabrini, who for his own purposes copied the images from a seventeenth-century botanical work, adding a number of plants and updating the whole with the Linnaean nomenclature that had become prevalent in the intervening century.



  • Bauer, Franz Andreas. Delineations of Exotick Plants Cultivated in the Royal Gardens at Kew. London: Published by W. T. Aiton; Printed by W. Bulmer and Co. for George Nicol, 1796.
  • Bleichmar, Daniela. Visible Empire: Botanical Expeditions and Visual Culture in the Hispanic Enlightenment. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012.
  • Conan, Michael, ed. Baroque Garden Cultures: Emulation, Sublimation, Subversion. Dumbarton Oaks Colloquium on the History of Landscape Architecture 25. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2005.
  • Daston, Lorraine, and Peter Galison. Objectivity. New York: Zone Books; Cambridge, MA: Distributed by the MIT Press, 2007.
  • Ford, Brian J. "Scientific Illustration in the Eighteenth Century." In The Cambridge History of Science. Vol. 4, Eighteenth-Century Science, edited by Roy Porter, 561–83. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
  • Gaskell, Roger. “Printing House and Engraving Shop. A Mysterious Collaboration.” The Book Collector 53, no. 5 (2004): 213–51.
  • Ogilvie, Brian W. “Image and Text in Natural History, 1500–1700.” The Power of Images in Early Modern Science. Basel and Boston: Birkhäuser, 2003.

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