18th C Decorative Botanical Art Term Paper

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In Jamaica, like many other physicians abroad, Sloane collected specimen; later, he acquired the collections of others. Among the botanical material in his collection were exotic plants and bird skins, "unique albums of Durer's prints and drawings" "a vast library of manuscripts and printed books" (Geographical 2003 26+,the second two items of which probably contained abundant botanical engravings.

Not all of the items Sloane collected survived. One that id, however, was cocoa, which he brought back to England and "marketed shrewdly as a medicinal drink valued for its 'Lightness on the Stomach'" (Sterns 2003 411+). The financial incentive was strong in many of the collectors, although with Sloane, it also had a practical side as he went in search of remedies. In 1712, for example, Sloane became keen to purchase the collection of the German physician, Engelbert Kaempfer. A chapter of Kaempfer's book, Exotic Pleasures, mentioned a number of Oriental remedies, along with recipes, including one using the exotic Japanese tea plant, the white opium poppy and cannabis; it was supposed to be good for gout.

As a result of his personal collecting, and his purchase of others' collections, Sloane "managed to mix the simple businessman in him with the simple scientist to produce a remedia composita that cured, among other things, the financial woes of the impecunious Apothecaries" one of which was the Chelsea Physic Garden where he had studied. At some point, Sloane had "become the leaseholder of the land on which the Chelsea Physic Garden was built, and in 1722 he leased the land back to the Apothecaries for the sum of five pounds a year in perpetuity 'on condition that it be kept up and maintained by the Company as a physick garden'" (Sterns 2003 411+). Part of the agreement was that the garden was to convey to the Royal Society fifty plant specimens annually. "By 1796, when the arrangement ceased, the Royal Society had accumulated 3,750 specimens" (Sterns 2003 411+).

This would have been an impetus for botanical artworks, many of which would doubtless have been copies by the engravers and perhaps used in other ways. It was certain, however, that Sloane's collections influenced the painters and designers of the day. "On his death in 1753, his herbarium and Cabinet of Curiosities, the most comprehensive collection in England, was bequeathed to the city of London for a sum far below its worth" (Sterns 2003 411+).

The Chelsea Physic Garden was also a great favorite of the Duchess of Somerset, who wrote that the garden "demonstrates the interconnectedness of the natural sciences, history, geography and so on. Not to mention literature and art, where representations of gardens, both the enchanted and the enchanting, abound. Perhaps there is no such thing as a garden 'simple' after all" (Sterns 2003 411+).

A president of the Royal Society subsequent to Sloane, Sir Joseph Banks, was one of the most powerful men in the British scientific community at the time, and he commissioned or caused to be published significant numbers of botanical illustrations that would have influenced both artists in other genres and the public, still hungry for information about exotic plants (Tobin 1999 175). Banks was also unofficial director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, giving him yet another platform from which to influence the public taste.

Banks himself had sailed with Captain Cook on the first of Cook's voyages around the world in 1768. "Banks brought with him Dr. Daniel Solander, a botanist and pupil of Carl von Linne (Linnaeus), the naturalist Herman Sporing, two artists, Sydney Parkinson and Alexander Buchan, and four servants to assist in an ambitious undertaking: the cataloguing of all the new plants they encountered on their voyage" (Tobin 1999 175). Banks collected many "Brazilian fruits: melons, pineapples, oranges, limes, lemons, mangoes, and bananas" (Tobin 1999 176). He later transplanted many of the seeds in Tahiti: the artists had drawn all of them.

Years later, during Banks' time at Kew from 1772 to 1780, "approximately seven thousand new plants arrived in England from around the world" (Tobin 1999 175). The gardens are often credited with converting knowledge to profit and power, "for the Empire and for the industrial world system of which Britain was then the leader" (Tobin 1999 176). In addition, Banks "monitored the activities of botanical gardens that were established by the British in their West Indian and East Indian colonies" (Tobin 1999 176) and also corresponded with botanists in Calcutta, being convinced that Britain's prosperity and that of its colonies would be "enhanced by the bold and imaginative utilization of the world's natural resources" (Tobin 1999 777). He believed this despite an unfortunate end to one of his early attempts at plant transfer for the empire's benefit. It was Captain Bligh's Bounty that was to be used to take breadfruit from Tahiti to the West Indies as food for slaves on the sugar plantations there. That plan ended, however, when the Bounty's crew mutinied, killing one o the Kew gardeners Banks had sent along (Tobin 1999 177).

At first, botanical illustration, originated as a help to Linnaeus' classification system. It is not surprising, then that "Botanical art in late-eighteenth-century Britain was heavily influenced by its role in the classification of plant life and, in effect, became an extension of botany. What was represented and what was not represented in botanical illustrations of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century reflect the concerns of a botany shaped simultaneously by Linne's system of classification and by the colonial imperative of the era" (Tobin 1990 178).

Linnaean taxonomy greatly influenced the botanical art of the era. Precluded in almost all cases were references to other flora and fauna or to societal context or even use. Indeed, the drawings are often diagrammatic, and so completely filled with detail that they could be used by scientists to identify and otherwise study the plant in question (Tobin 1990 178). "The late-eighteenth-century botanical illustration was heavily influenced by Linnaean botany, which sought to erase the environmental and cultural contexts of plants" (Tobin 1990 179). That methods was far different from the illustration in pre-Enlightenment herbals, for example. But is clear that it influenced the decorative arts nonetheless.

A comparison of the work of Claude Aubriet (1665-1742), the first botanical artist to be part of an expedition, with commercial textiles demonstrates the similarities.

The first drawing is of a member of the jasmine family, the second a pomegranate. Both came from a volume that bore the arms of the French royal family on its boards (RHS Web site). Dates are not given, but it is possible they were done about the turn of the eighteenth century, considering that Aubriet's first expedition was in 1700.

The two textile samples below also appear to include all the 'working parts' of the plants they depict, especially the first sample. The first is a French (?) piece of colored silk and metallic thread "brocaded on silk damask ground" and is dated 1709-1710. The second includes a pattern of lace and floral bouquets, and dates to about 1750 (Costumes.org Web site). it, too, is believed to be French; it shows more departure from the 'botanical' or linnaean draftsmanship than the first one, not surprising as the hunt for exotic species was by then half a century old. http://www.costumes.org/travel/usitt2001/8/Mvc-005f_small.jpg

Source: Costumes.org Web site


Women were encouraged to at least dabble in the new science of botany, by creating orangeries. At the same time, men of vision were bringing back useful plants from far-off places, perhaps most winningly (at least by today's standards) was Sloane's retrieval of cocoa. Other men were on botanical missions with financial or empire-building intent. No matter; anyone who went anywhere in the Age of Enlightenment seemed to return home with exotic finds. Botanical art escaped the laboratory and found the engravers, who sometimes used the pictures later -- without payment -- to illustrate other works (Tobin 1990 179). Shteir argued that botany "bridged aesthetic, utilitarian, and intellectual approaches to nature" (Shteir 1995 2) and also served to redefine "social and cultural values for the upper and middle classes, the purveyors and consumers of 'a new polite culture of botanical art and fashion'" (Shteir 1995 4).

In addition to forming a 'Botany Society' of both men and women, the pursuit of exotic plants and the recording of them also united the traditional with the radical. Mary Wollstonecraft, recommended "gardening as a stimulus to middle-class women's mental development. 'Gardening, experimental philosophy and literature,' she wrote in the Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), 'would afford them subjects to think of and matter for conversation, that in some degree would exercise their understanding'" (Bell 1990 477).

It is clear that interest in botany, in the 18th century, was a close to universal as a popular concept can be, so it is not surprising that botanical prints, on paper and on fabric, were popular and that some, a very few, have been preserved to…[continue]

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