Beauty in Truth – Timothy Walker

Beauty in Truth – Botanical Illustration :  Timothy Walker

Timothy Walker opened his January ’24 talk with the following slide of quotations on beauty, truth, art and illustration:

“Nothing can be beautiful which is not true.” John Ruskin

“In the best illustrations , the artistic aspect is not lessened by the scientific purpose.” Martin Rix

“Art is the flower. Life is the green leaf.” Charles Rennie Mackinstosh

“If you can draw a leaf, you can draw everything.” John Ruskin

“There is beauty in truth.” Wilfrid Blunt

He followed this with some statistics – there are over 400,000 species of plants and over 200 Euphorbia (flowering plants). There has been over 400 years of botanical study at Oxford. Botany is the study of plants using scientific method. He then asked the question “What is Art?” with definitions from Plato, Frank Lloyd Wright and Edgar Degas (Art is not what you see but what you make others see.)

The question of whether line or colour is more important was raised. More detail is revealed in line drawings and the merits of drawing versus photography was discussed. Until you draw something you have not looked at it properly. Various kinds of representation in different medium were described – art on MSS ( e.g. Anne de Bretagne – Les Grandes Heures), the work of engravers and printers such as Fuch’s, Sowerby, Durer and Bauer were mentioned. Work can be done in monochrome, colour pencils or chalk, oil, acrylics, gouache or water colour. Various techniques can be employed for different effects such as mezzotint, stippling, full colour printing and lithography. Models of plants have been made in wood, canvas, and rattan and very accurate glass flower models were made in Europe and taken to Harvard Museum of Natural History (Boston) and are well worth viewing. Remarkable catalogues of wildflowers were made by Marjorie Blamey and Frances Rose (Wildflower Key 1987).

     The intent of botanical illustration is to identify and record botanical diversity. The Greek Theuphrastus (371 -287 BC) made an Enquiry into Plants and in 1501 Fuch’s Herbal appeared. In 1866 Heyland produced Euphorbia. In the 1600’s copper engraving appeared and D. Laggan produced some very detailed engravings. In the 1700’s Linnaeus (1707-1778) produced a standard list of botanical names and Ehret (besotted with lilies and cacti) produced a lot of detail about plants. His books of illustrations fetch enormous sums e.g. £30,000. Other notable names in illustration were Joseph Banks (1743-1820) who travelled with Captain Cook on HMS Endeavour and Sydney Parkinson who also travelled with Cook.

Another interesting development was the appearance of colour charts (Bauer – 140 colours) and the RHS colour chart of thousands of colours. John Sibthorp produced an important work called Flora Graeca in 10 volumes. It had very detailed, life size drawings.

     Other important 19th century names were associated with Kew Royal Botanic Garden – the Hooker brothers William and Joseph and the publication of the Curtis Botanical magazine which is still in existence. The Giant Victorian Water Lily – Victoriana Amazonica was cultivated in 1851 at the Oxford Botanic Garden’s water lily pond. The 20th century produced a number of women illustrators at Kew. Some remarkable photographs of pollen grains were published by Rob Kessler and Robert Scotland (1989) and photos were used to illustrate landscape and habitat. Every year another 2,000 plants are identified but illustrators are still seen as technicians and not given enough credit. Timothy emphasized that their work is very important for revealing fine detail, not always apparent in mediums like photography of digital imagery.

        Timothy Walker was an entertaining and very knowledgeable speaker who gave us a dazzling display of slides with witty commentary. I think we all felt a greater appreciation for the fine work of botanical illustrators who detail not only the foliage, but flowers, seeds, and roots of the plant world.