Book Reviews: Botanical Illustration


Like many of you, I am curious when a book asserts itself as an authoritative survey of a favorite subject. Charged by Gail Guth with reviewing Martyn Rix’s The Golden Age of Botanical Art, I chose four other titles for comparison and will present summaries of each in chronological order of publication. The Martin Rix book is number four.

The Art of Botanical IllustrationThe earliest of the series discussed here is The Art of Botanical Illustration by Wilfrid Blunt (with the assistance of William T. Stearn), my volume published by Collins, London, 2nd ed., 1967 (1st edit. 1950). Compared to the number of images in the other books, this one has a modest 46 color plates; 32 black and white plates; 61 illustrations; and 18 figures to amplify the text. Having the 3 appendices and a comprehensive index contributes significant value to this volume. The 2015 reprint of the 2001 edition of the book has a steep list price of almost $70 but includes many more illustrations than the original. Of the four volumes considered here this one is the one most clearly directed towards educating the aspiring or even professional botanical artist in technique as well as offering an appreciation of the field’s history. It is also the most historically comprehensive (even trumping Rix with a photo of a Paleolithic plant carving). William Stearn is the notable author of Botanical Latin, so you can be sure this book brings both the expertise of the trained botanist as well as that of the professional artist. It’s important to remember that Blunt was born in 1901 and writes much in the insightful, detailed style of that day. Of all of them, it’s probably the most helpful to the intermediate and advanced botanical artist and teacher because of its comprehensiveness.

Art of Botanical IllustrationThe Art of Botanical Illustration – a History of the Classic Illustrators and Their Achievements, by Lys de Bray (Quantum Books, 1989, 2nd ed. 2005).

A talented botanical artist and prolific author, de Bray was unknown to me before this project. The only one to cite the 1500 BCE Temple of Thutmose III at Karnak and its visual representations of 275 species — ‘all the plants that grow’ — de Bray earns my respect because most resources omit this significant ancient artwork. Full-page illustrations of some of the earliest works, including Rubus fruticosus from the Codex Vindobonensis are notably included. Her comment “The Tradescants were veritable magpies, collecting all kinds of curiosities in the course of their travels. Their collection eventually formed the nucleus of the Ashmolean Museum’s collection at Oxford” seems warmly characteristic of the broad-brush but very knowledgeable humor that makes this book such a fast and pleasant read. Newer readers in this genre will especially appreciate how she sets the development of botanical illustration into a much wider historical context with her easy, entertaining style.

A New FloweringA New Flowering: 1000 Years of Botanical Art by Dr. Shirley Sherwood (Ashmolean Museum, 2005)

Dr. Sherwood pairs illustrations spanning the Middle Ages through the Scientific Revolution with mirroring pieces by contemporary artists. In the introductory essays, she outlines the influence of British artists Margaret Mee and Rory McEwen as having special influence in this new renaissance of interest in the natural world. Prof. Lucia Tongiorgi Tomasi’s essay is a delightful entry into this volume, sharing valuable historical detail about each artist and the driving forces behind their work. With excellent production values and easy-to-read text, its antique/modern parallel format shows beyond all doubt how botanical art has thrived in the last century. (Of course, the development of highly permanent pigments has helped modern artists’ cause too!) Essays at the end of the book cover contemporary artists’ biographies, the scientific context of botanical illustration and some techniques of botanical illustration.

The Golden Age of Botanical ArtThe Golden Age of Botanical Art by Martyn Rix, (University of Chicago Press, 2013)

Martyn Rix is editor of Curtis’s Botanical Magazine and author of numerous books, notably The Genus Lachenalaia and Rory McEwen: The Colours of Reality. With full-page, full-color illustrations on almost all of its high-quality glossy pages, this book is serious eye candy for the botanical artist and historian. The bibliography has an inexcusably unreadable small font and too much white space between lines, but the rest of the publication is quite readable. The book features work spanning the late 17th through the mid 18th century but also includes early Mediterranean frescos and pages from the Codex Vindobonensis. Rix echoes a deep mixed concern of mine: “Though we have fewer botanists we have more botanical artists than ever before”. We definitely need more of both to help others conserve our precious natural heritage. He attributes the earliest surviving botanical art to the Cretans and the eastern Mediterranean ca. 300 C.E., also mentioning Theophrastus’ herbal of ~ ca. 300 BCE. This and the Blunt/Stearns volume are the only ones to cover even a brief history of botanical art in the Far East, a notable omission in the others, especially considering that the Chinese have venerated and painted flowers for over a millennium. I enjoyed reading the many detailed accounts of early botanical explorers and artists.

Flora IllustrataFlora Illustrata: Great Works from the LuEsther T. Mertz Library of the New York Botanical Garden, (Yale University Press/New York Botanical Garden 2014 published by donor subscription)

This book combines patient scholarship, a beautiful balance of images on the page, much lesser-known information on the history of botanical art, and a fascinating history of the New York Botanical Garden’s (NYBG) comprehensive library. It also underlines the importance of the role of philanthropy in the realm of scholarship. What I was missing in Lys de Bray’s book were endnotes or footnotes. This volume gives ample references in that regard, making it valuable for the serious researcher. Each chapter is written by a specialist in that field. For example, the author of chapter two, on European Medieval and Renaissance Herbals, is Professor Tomasi, Distinguished Delegate to the Chancellor of Culture and Honorary President of the Museum of Graphic Arts at the University of Pisa. Other chapter authors include Therese O’Malley, Ph.D., Associate Dean at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. and Vanessa Bezemer Sellers, newly appointed director of NYBG’s Institute for the Humanities and co-editor of the volume. Gina Douglas, the editor of the Linnean Society Newsletter, contributed a chapter on Linnaeus and the Foundations of Modern Botany. The chapter on the exploration of Brazil is written by eminent Austrian scientist and historian Dr. H. Walter Lack. Dr. Judith K Major, University of Kansas, has published extensively on the history and theory of landscape architecture, as has Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, who contributed the closing chapter of the book, titled ‘An American Kew’.

Among all these notable volumes, it’s so hard to choose just one, or even two, for our collections. There are other scholarly and artistic overviews of the history of botanical art, with both general and specific focus, but for this review, it seemed wise to focus only on this select few. Gill Saunders’ Picturing Plants: An Analytical History of Botanical Illustration and Celia Fisher’s The Golden Age of Flowers are worth checking out at your local library, but if I were to choose just one or two historical compendiums for my collection, it would be from among these five reviewed. Good luck choosing!


This article appears in the 2015 No.2 Journal of Natural Science Illustration

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