Botanist's Delight

Jon Foro on May 28, 2017

Bot-BotanicalSketchbooks-1200Are you a plant lover, or is there one in your life? How about an art lover? Or a plant-art lover? If so, you owe it to yourself a look at Botanical Sketchbooks, Helen and William Bynum's compendium of planty illustrations spanning six centuries and almost 300 pages. This stunning collection - and that's not hyperbole - features 80 artists from around the world - including  Leonardo da Vinci, Carl Linnaeus, and Maria Sibylla Merian - along with "the motivations and adventures of the makers, and the plants that fired their imaginations."

Enjoy these images from Botanical Sketchbooks presented with its introductionreprinted with permission from Princeton Architectural Press.

Introduction: a compulsion to record

It is all the same, drawing, painting, modelling, the irresistible desire to copy any beautiful object which strikes the eye. Why cannot one be content to look at it? I cannot rest, I must draw, however poor the result…

So wrote the teenage Beatrix Potter as a troubled adolescent, fascinated with the natural world. The happy culmination would be her famous illustrated children’s stories, but along the way she produced skilful botanical sketches with nothing ‘poor’ about them. In voicing her compulsion to make a record of what she saw, Potter could have spoken for all the artists featured here. Young or old, amateurs or professionals, scientists, illustrators, collectors and adventurers – all shared the urge to sketch plants. They drew to engage with the plant world, by looking, understanding, capturing, and recording its details in an image. If the ephemeral beauty of plants, the sheen of a petal, a detail of dusty pollen or tilt of a leaf lent themselves to sketching, so too did the enduring and rugged form of root and branch or the texture of bark. Some hoped to find fame by their art, or at least make a living. Others were scientists, travellers and plant collectors who needed an aide-mémoire. Sketching is also about pleasure; there need be no other impetus.

While Beatrix Potter might not be the most obvious person to find in a book of botanical sketches, she is certainly one of a series of fascinating characters who sketched for different reasons, in different times and in many different places. It is the results of such endeavours, the motivations and adventures of the makers, and the plants that fired their imaginations, that are celebrated in Botanical Sketchbooks.


Bot-049-Maria-1200‘Heliconia formerly Musa.’ Maria Graham Callcott sometimes presented her plants in scenic landscapes to capture the full effect of the exotic flora.

Credit: © The Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

What makes a botanical sketch?

An effective sketch can consist of simply a few minimalist pencil marks, or perhaps a more deliberate pen and ink drawing, in sepia or bold Indian ink. English-speakers only began ‘sketching’ officially in the late 17th century, at least that’s when the word ‘sketch’ (from German skizze or Dutch schets) enters the English language. German skizze, from the early 17th century, captured the sound of the Italian schizzo, meaning quickly splattering or splashing. It seems to express the dynamism and immediacy of many of the sketches seen here. French had its esquisse and Spanish esquicio, going all the way back to the Latin schedius. The popularity of the act was in part dependent on the availability of the materials. Drawing became much more widespread, indeed a recognized activity in itself, as paper became cheaper and more plentiful in 15th-century Europe. Sketches became a way of accumulating and storing visual information.

Colour added complexity: washes, watercolours, opaque body colours, perhaps small-scale studies in oil. The printmaker and artist Martin Schongauer created one of the earliest recognized botanical sketches with his study of three peonies in the early 1470s. Crucially, these were drawn direct for life not from memory or copied from elsewhere, and were reproduced in his Madonna of the Rose Garden of 1473. Because the boundaries between a hasty drawing, a pondered study (such as Schongauer’s) and an almost finished picture are matters of degree, we have cast the net widely and brought together a varied and fascinating range of styles materials and purposes. Formal botanical art can be constrained by convention – both artistic and scientific – while sketches give the artist freedom to explore and express ideas.


From friends’ gardens, Mary Anne Stebbing drew ‘a pea from a mummy from Egypt?’ and Fuchsia ‘Daniel Lambert’.

Credit: © The Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Before the late 18th century sketchbooks were generally bespoke items, but artists have also made their marks on writing pads, account books, field notebooks, school exercise books, vellum, loose sheets of paper, sometimes pasted or bound into albums, partly worked manuscripts, letters, herbarium sheets and as marginalia. Carl Linnaeus drew on the back of an envelope and Mark Catesby on a playing card – reminders that for each carefully prepared session, people also improvised and used whatever was available. Sketches often went hand in hand with the expansion in note-taking, as records of thoughts and observations. Among the most famous notebooks must be those of Renaissance polymath Leonardo da Vinci; filled with words and images these are repositories of the way he worked through and mused on many subjects. While very few reach his intellectual and artistic heights, we can all use a notebook.

Private sketches were often consigned to the artist’s folder or the studio floor and were not intended for public consumption or to last beyond their creators’ needs. Just such tiny sketches, from the final year of the great Pierre-Joseph Redouté, were gathered up, collected and revered because of his renown. Some works lay between public and private worlds and were admired within domestic circles, by groups of virtuosi or networks of plant obsessives. Such potential riches can fall prey to the vicissitudes of time, and the uncertainties of preservation and accessibility for researchers today. Francis Nicholl’s 18th-century parchment manuscript was rescued from the wreckage of the London Blitz. William Griffith’s papers from India were dumped in the basement of the East India Company’s offices. Santiago Cortés’s 19th-century Colombian flora came to Kew via Cypress – no one knows how. But we are fortunate that sketches not made for posterity or designed to last are now appreciated in collections around the world. Transitory and vulnerable as they are, the experience of bringing them into the light again has been a privilege.

Bot-214-Sebastian-Schedel-1200In his studies it was important for Sebastian Schedel to capture the colour as well as the form of the flowers (the rose on the right is showing a mutation), for these would be used later by the colourists. Subsequent additions, pressed flowers and floral details on pasted cards indicate that it was perhaps a work in progress until Schedel’s death.

Credit: © The Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Ordering the parts

High botanical art is sumptuous. Its history is generally told as the intertwined importance of naturalism in art and the pressing need for accurate plant identification. Added to this are the developments in the naming of plants (taxonomy), the recognition of the relationships between species (classification), and, as the science of botany matured, a deeper understanding of the structure and function of the parts of the plant. Art and science. Beauty in utility. Botanical sketches are part of the back story. Many sketches in these pages support these narratives, but we have tried to find new ways of looking at them and feature more botanist-artists such as the pre-eminent Joseph Dalton Hooker.

Drawing has rules, but also allows for individual expression. The same concept has been applied to the way we have shaped this book. Chronologically the sketches begin with the rise of naturalism in the 15th century and effectively stop in the later 20th century since we include only the dead. Encounters between cultures, such as when western naturalism came into contact with the very different artistic interpretations of the natural world in the east, produced a fascinating melding of styles. Material from Japan, China and India captures this coming together and reflects the global nature of the aesthetic, scientific and commercial interest in plants.


Olivia Coates Palgrave. Spiny Commiphora Africana is recognisable in the bush by its spherical shape, short trunk and low branches.

Credit: © The Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Sketches have been made in the field and the studio, in the wilderness and in the garden, and for a vast range of motives. We have arranged them into four chapters: ‘Made on Location’, ‘Doing Science’, ‘Making Art’ and ‘A Pleasing Occupation’. Each section unfolds chronologically by date of birth; each also combines familiar with less familiar artists, and professionals sit next to amateurs. Of course, different sketches could put their makers into more than one of these chapters and sections. The guiding principle has been to look at the material itself rather than the reputation of the artist. These are images from the rudimentary to the more complete, although one criterion was that the plants featured should be for the most part recognizable and identifiable. The aim has been to offer a broad selection of the many wonderful possibilities.

Sketches create an image from the blank page up. Despite photography’s many virtues, the early cameras in unskilled hands could not approach the vivid freshness of a sketch, producing images often of poor quality in uninspiring shades of grey. But the photograph quickly assumed the role of the sketchbook, especially in the field. Learning to draw, once regarded as an important accomplishment, fell out of fashion. Perhaps the ready availability of sketching apps will reverse this trend, although still nothing feels like pencil or brush and paper in the hand. Botanical art, always appreciated in science, is flourishing again, thanks to both patrons and practitioners. Sketching is an inseparable part of this. The 19th-century German botanist Julius von Sachs was right: ‘If you haven’t drawn it, you haven’t seen it.’

Bot-270-John-Day-1200‘Orchis latifolia’ (Dactylorhiza incarnate): for once of the hothouse, John Day drew this ‘splendid specimen of a British orchid’ in June 1984, but confessed to distorting the proportions of the flower spike, ‘being rather thired of the undertaking’ and wanting the time on to include the leaves. Even obsessives can struggle on occasion.

Credit: © The Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew


You might also like:


Subscribe to Omnivoracious: The Amazon Book Review, featuring picks for the best books of the month, author interviews, reading recommendations, and more from the Amazon Books editors.

Shop this article on

Botanical Sketchbooks
Print Book


Lists + Reviews

Best Books Literature + Fiction Nonfiction Kids + Young Adult Mystery, Thriller + Suspense Science Fiction + Fantasy Comics + Graphic Novels Romance Eating + Drinking


Interviews Guest Essays Celebrity Picks

News + Features

News Features Awards


Omnivoracious, The Amazon Book Review

Feeds Facebook Twitter YouTube