Field Event Reports

13 February: Visit to Oxford University Herbaria

On a cold but dry evening we were greeted by Dr. Stephen Harris, Curator of the Herbarium, who led us into the Department of Plant Sciences. Rather than herbarium specimens as on previous visits, various books and plates with botanical illustrations were laid out for us to view. Stephen began by explaining the difference between illustration and art: illustration required scientific accuracy whereas art was open to the interpretation of the artist.

The collection includes <em>Hortus Sanitatis 1485</em>
Hortus Sanitatis 1485

Botanical illustration was first carried out in Greece in the 1st century AD by Pedanius Dioscorides. His De Materia Medica, drawn from dried specimens, acted as a standard for 1400 years until Meydenbach in Germany published his Hortus Sanitatisin 1485 which was basically a copy of this older material.It was not until the late 16th century that drawing from life began, originally by Flemish botanists.

A volume by Robert Morison
Robert Morison Herbal 1699

We were shown a volume of a herbal dating from 1699, the preparatory work for which was carried out by Robert Morison, the first Professor of Botany in Oxford. The first volume was published in 1680 but Morison died in 1683 and the volume we saw was completed by Jacob Bobart the Younger. In all it was to have been a very large work but the final volume was never finished.

Up to this point illustrations were mainly in black and white. Although some images were coloured by hand in water colour, mainly by women and children, they were rarely printed until the late 17th century. One publication of note in the Oxford collection is Sibthorp's Flora Graeca, although this is an extremely rare volume. Although he collected all the material for this, it was not published until 1840, 44 years after Sibthorp's death. It cost a huge amount, £650, about 17 years' wages for an ordinary labourer at the time, so very few copies were printed and sold.

Flora Londiniensis
Curtis's Flora Londinenis

This work was not displayed as Stephen was concentrating on British flora, but another herbal of that period, Curtis's Flora Londinensis (1795) was shown and included a fine picture of Papaver rhoeas, the common poppy. Interestingly, illustrations from this period are being popularised in modern times through ceramics manufacturers such as Portmeirion, though they often have to be truncated to fit on plates and mugs.

In the 18th and early 19th centuries organic pigments were used, some of which faded quickly, and it was only when lithographic processes were introduced in the 19th century that botanical illustration really took off. Artists who were active then included Mary Fielding (1804-95) who illustrated plant material collected by her botanist husband Henry Fielding, William Harvey (1811-66) who painted excellent and highly detailed portraits of algae, and Charlotte Trower (1855-1928), several of whose illustrations were shown to us.

Samples of illustrations by Charlotte Trower
Illustration by Charlotte Trower

In fact botanical illustration was encouraged as a pastime for well-to-do young Victorian ladies. Stephen mentioned two interesting historical points. The first is that early illustrations included plant roots but they had largely disappeared by the 18th century, to the detriment of botanical accuracy. They only began to be studied again in recent times. The second point is that from a religious perspective in older times, plants were considered 'pure', i.e. they had not been expelled from the Garden of Eden, and therefore could not be 'contaminated' by sexual activity. This attitude only changed in the 1690s when plant sexuality was demonstrated.

At the end of his presentation, Stephen was warmly thanked by everyone for a stimulating and absorbing evening.

Report: Michael Bloom

Participants:
James Gray, Jennifer Mary Harding, Tony Vincent , Sally Gillard , Nigel Gregory , Caroline Gregory , Margaret Abel , Gunilla Harbour, Hugh Summers , Michael Bloom , Graham Bateman

 

This was an opportunity to view many old botanical books and drawings This was an opportunity to view many old botanical books and drawings This was an opportunity to view many old botanical books and drawings This was an opportunity to view many old botanical books and drawings

This was an opportunity to view many old botanical books and drawings This was an opportunity to view many old botanical books and drawings This was an opportunity to view many old botanical books and drawings This was an opportunity to view many old botanical books and drawings