Botanical illustration

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American Turk's cap Lily, Lilium superbum, Georg Dionysius Ehret (1708-70), About 1750–53, Watercolor and gouache on vellum V&A Museum no. D.589-1886[1]
Banksia coccinea from Ferdinand Bauer's 1813 work Illustrationes Florae Novae Hollandiae

Botanical illustration is the art of depicting the form, color, and details of plant species. They are generally meant to be scientifically descriptive about subjects depicted and are often found printed alongside a botanical description in books, magazines, and other media. Some are sold as artworks.[2] Often composed by a botanical illustrator in consultation with a scientific author, their creation requires an understanding of plant morphology and access to specimens and references.

Many illustrations are in watercolour, but may also be in oils, ink,[3] or pencil, or a combination of these and other media. The image may be life-size or not, though at times a scale is shown, and may show the life cycle and/or habitat of the plant and its neighbors, the upper and reverse sides of leaves, and details of flowers, bud, seed and root system.

The fragility of dried or otherwise preserved specimens, and restrictions or impracticalities of transport, saw illustrations used as valuable visual references for taxonomists. In particular, minute plants or other botanical specimens only visible under a microscope were often identified through illustrations. To that end, botanical illustrations used to be generally accepted as types for attribution of a botanical name to a taxon.[4] However, current guidelines state that on or after 1 January 2007, the type must be a specimen 'except where there are technical difficulties of specimen preservation or if it is impossible to preserve a specimen that would show the features attributed to the taxon by the author of the name.' (Arts 40.4 and 40.5 of the Shenzen Code, 2018).[5]


Blackberry. Vienna Dioscurides, early sixth century
gouache painting of cowslips by Albrecht Dürer
Tuft of Cowslips (1526) by Albrecht Dürer, gouache on vellum, collection of the National Gallery of Art
Electrotype - 'nature printing' by Alois Auer (1853)
A delicate illustration of a white lotus flower on cream paper with green foliage
East Indian Lotus (Nelumbo nucifera), Gouache on oriental paper, late 19th century, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Early herbals and pharmacopoeia of many cultures include illustrations of plants. Botanical illustrations in such texts were often created to assist with identification of a specie for some medicinal purpose. The earliest surviving illustrated botanical work is the Codex vindobonensis. It is a copy[6] of Dioscorides's De Materia Medica, and was made in the year 512 for Juliana Anicia, daughter of the former Western Roman Emperor Olybrius.[7] The problem of accurately describing plants between regions and languages, before the introduction of taxonomy, was potentially hazardous to medicinal preparations.[8] The low quality of printing of early works sometimes presents difficulties in identifying the species depicted.[9] [10]

When botanical nomenclature began to be systematized and texts on taxonomic classifications were regularly published by scientific organizations and academic institutions, botanical illustrations became common requirements for popular usability and referential quality of these texts. New printing processes in the 18th century and on allowed artists such as Franz and Ferdinand Bauer to depict minute aspects and render more accurate color portrayals of subjects. Widening interest in natural history and horticulture stimulated production of many floras and other publications on natural sciences.[11] Amateur botanists, gardeners, and natural historians provided a market for botanical publications and illustrations increased the appeal and accessibility of these to the general reader. Exploded details accompanied text and highlighted specific features of subjects described, allowing lay-audiences to more easily identify species.

Botanical illustration is a feature of many notable books on plants, of which a few include Vienna Dioscurides, Flora Graeca, The Banksias, and The Cactaceae. Curtis's Botanical Magazine (1787), a 230-year-old magazine long-associated with the Linnaean Society and Kew Gardens, is now primarily one of finer botanical illustration.

Field guides, floras, catalogues and magazines produced since the introduction of photography to print material have continued to include illustrations. A compromise of accuracy and idealized images from several specimens can be easily (re)produced by skilled artists. Illustrations are also at times just preferred for some print/digital audiences or text formats.

The contributions of botanical illustrators continue to be praised and sought and very fine examples continue to be produced. In the 1980s, Celia Rosser undertook to illustrate every Banksia species for the masterwork, The Banksias. When another species was described after its publication, Banksia rosserae, it was named to honour her mammoth accomplishment. Other illustrators, such as the prolific Matilda Smith, have been specifically honoured for this work. In 1972, the Smithsonian Institution hired its first botanical illustrator, Alice Tangerini.[12]

Recently,[13] a renaissance has been occurring in botanical art and illustration. Organizations devoted to furthering the art form are found in the US (American Society of Botanical Artists), UK (Society of Botanical Artists), Australia (Botanical Art Society of Australia), and South Africa (Botanical Artists Association of South Africa), among others. There is an increasing interest in the changes occurring in the natural world and in the central role plants play in maintaining healthy ecosystems. A sense of urgency has developed in documenting today's plant life for future generations. Original botanical illustrations rendered in traditional media (with which art conservators are more familiar) can and might serve as reference research materials for endangered species.

Notable botanical illustrators[edit]

Notable botanical illustrators include:


The Linnean Society of London awards the Jill Smythies Award for botanical illustration.[14]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "American Turk's cap Lily". Victoria and Albert Museum. Retrieved 2007-12-12.
  2. ^ Sydney Living Museums (2016-07-13), The art in the illustration, archived from the original on 2021-12-21, retrieved 2016-07-29
  3. ^ Schaap, Robert; Tsukioka, Kōgyo; Rimer, J. Thomas; Kerlen, H. (2010), The beauty of silence : Japanese Nō and nature prints by Tsukioka Kōgyo, 1869-1927, Hotei Publishing, ISBN 978-90-04-19385-7
  4. ^ Citation needed.
  5. ^ "International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants". International Association for Plant Taxonomy (IAPT). Retrieved 2023-07-30.
  6. ^ ...if the "Codex vindobonensis" is a copy of this text, can the earlier line be omitted or edited for accuracy?
  7. ^ "Kew Gardens website".
  8. ^ Citation needed - examples? Perhaps previous writer/editor means "before the introduction of [genetic methods of tracing/describing/framing/etc.] taxonomy"? Taxonomy as a practice of simply classifying/naming organisms is something humans have been doing for a long time, so saying "before the introduction of taxonomy" is not very clear.
  9. ^ modern scholars of early works? When is "early?"
  10. ^ Elliott, B. (2011). The world of the Renaissance herbal. Renaissance Studies, 25(1), 24–41.
  11. ^ Citation needed - any articles on trends in scientific publishing in 18th/19th century?
  12. ^ Corson, Cheryl (March 9, 2017). "Botanical Illustrator Alice Tangerini". Hill Rag. Capital Community News Inc. Archived from the original on July 14, 2017. Retrieved July 6, 2017.
  13. ^ Since when?
  14. ^ "Linnean Society Medals, Awards, Prizes and Grants". Retrieved 16 October 2021.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]