A Brief Look at Botanical Art in 18th Century America
by Leslie Exton
The drawings honoring the life’s work of Lucy Marks currently at the Jefferson Library at Monticello are descendants of the great herbal drawings of the 6th century Juliana Anicia Codex of Dioscorides. This manuscript remained the standard for pharmaceutical and herbal writing for almost a thousand years; it demonstrates that in the investigation of the medicinal and healing properties of plants we find the beginnings of botanical art. Given that Lucy Marks had such an interest in the healing characteristics of plants it is not hard to imagine that she too might have studied plants through drawing.
In any case it is fair to assume that Lucy was aware of the genre of plant drawing. Though she was not “Williamsburg fancy” she came from an intellectually curious and educated family and was surrounded by books, pictures, and fine silver. Among the many volumes in her library she probably owned several herbals, or perhaps knew of them from her neighbors, Thomas Jefferson and William Byrd. The landed gentry of Virginia had considerable knowledge of plants and their properties and kept detailed documents and records of growing seasons and cultivation practices. No doubt they availed themselves of English and European botanical reference books.
One such reference could have been Elizabeth Blackwell’s A Curious Herbal. This two-volume catalog, published in 1739, was one of the earliest plant inventories. Mrs. Blackwell (1700-1758), needing to support herself after the imprisonment of her husband, heard that London doctors required a good illustrated herbal guide. Though not an artist or plantswoman herself, she was enthusiastic and resourceful and set about studying and drawing plants from Chelsea Physic Garden, producing five hundred hand-colored plates. While her drawings lack the sophistication and poetic charm of some of her European contemporaries her pictures did what they were designed to do: inform the medical profession. Her book was an immediate success, and sold enough copies to get her husband out of debtors’ prison.
While the finest examples of decorative botanical art of the 18th century were painted primarily for the aristocracy in England and France, it is from the journals and publications of visiting English naturalists that we have come to know our own native flora and fauna. One such botanist and artist was Mark Catesby (1682-1749), an Englishman who had contributed seed references for The Catalogus Plantarum, a publication of the London Society of Gardeners. His portion of the proceeds of this publication financed a visit to his married sister living in Williamsburg, Virginia, where he became a frequent guest of William Byrd, a plantation owner in nearby Tidewater. Byrd and Catesby became good friends, as they shared an interest in horticultural experiments and scientific observation.
Around 1720 Mark Catesby set out to explore and record the natural habitat of the eastern coast of North America. Catesby’s meticulous illustrations were published in 1747 as the Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands. They were among the first images of the natural world of the American colonies. These volumes were enormously successful in England and had a profound influence on the development of horticultural observation and the study of natural history in both American and European scientific communities. It is safe to assume that at some point Mark Catesby’s life’s work ended up in the libraries of Thomas Jefferson, William Byrd, and perhaps Lucy Marks.
William Bartram (1738-1823) was another botanical artist and nature writer of the 18th Century. Son of John Bartram, the official botanist to King George III for the American colonies, William Bartram was an artist, naturalist, and intrepid wilderness explorer – our first environmentalist perhaps! Bartram kept copious journals of his travels throughout the American Southeast, making drawings, collecting seeds, writing of his observations of plants and animals – a testament to living in harmony with nature. His book, Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, and East and West Florida, was published in 1791. A member of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia and well known to Thomas Jefferson, Bartram was invited to participate in the Lewis and Clark expedition west. Feeling too old and frail for such an adventure, Bartram did not accompany the explorers.
As is evident by the artwork in our exhibit the elements of botanical art have evolved significantly since the illustrations of Dioscorides, Elizabeth Blackwell, Mark Catesby, and William Bartram. Today’s botanical paintings are made less for their informative content than as fine artwork to be exhibited in museums, sold in commercial galleries, and displayed in contemporary parlors and drawing rooms. Botanical artists now come to the tradition more from art training and a lay interest in plants and the environment than from science. The improvement in pigments, papers, brushes and reproduction capabilities combined with more mature and sophisticated drawing results in what you see today – an exhibition we hope Lucy Marks would enjoy and appreciate.
Blunt, Wilfrid, The Art of Botanical Illustration, Dover Publications, Inc., NY, 1994
deBray, Lys, The Art of Botanical Illustration, Knickerbocker Press, NY, 1989
King, Ronald, Botanical Illustration, Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., NY, 1978
Kramer, Jack, The Art of Flowers, Watson-Guptill, NY, 2002
McBurney, Henrietta, Mark Catesby’s Natural History of America, Merrell Holberton, London, 1997