Art and Natural Science
By: Mary Anne Fitzpatrick
The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert is a carefully researched historical novel about a 19th century female botanist. The novel is widely praised as the story of a woman who, through her powerful observational skills, her ability to sketch botanical specimens, and her knowledge of publishing, becomes a major scientist.
I read this novel with great interest as we have recently selected 18th and 19th century botanical prints created by women to be displayed in the main conference room in Petigru College. As a College of Arts and Sciences, it is fitting that we display work by two pioneering women who made significant contributions to botanical illustrations, natural history, and the science of botany (i.e. to the fields of arts and sciences).
The first set of hand-colored copperplate engravings in the conference room are from the multi-volume work of Elizabeth Blackwell (1707-1758), titled A Curious Herbal, Containing Five Hundred Cuts, of the Most Useful Plants.
A Curious Herbal, Containing Five Hundred Cuts, of the Most Useful Plants - Plate 122: Garden clary, Elizabeth Blackwell, hand-colored copperplate engravings, London, 1737-1739
At the beginning of what is considered the golden period of botanical illustration, Elizabeth Blackwell recognized a need for a quality herbal reference guide. Her work emerged from dire financial necessity. With her husband imprisoned for his outstanding debts, Blackwell, trained as an artist, needing a way to support her family. She sketched the plants she found at Chelsea Physics Garden and conferred with botanists and physicians (including her own husband detained in Highgate Prison) about the technical names and uses of these specimens.
A Curious Herbal, published between 1737 – 1739, became an essential reference work for doctors and apothecaries and received a commendation from the Royal College of Physicians. Although largely unknown today, Elizabeth Blackwell made a significant contribution to medical knowledge and to the art of botanical illustration. Not surprisingly, Elizabeth has been described as an “ingenious lady.”
The back wall of the conference room displays 10 hand-colored lithographs from two works by Jane Wells Louden (1807-1858). When botanical illustration entered its Victorian period, there was a dramatic shift away from clinical illustrations as represented in the work of Blackwell. Advances in printing technology made botanical illustrations more affordable for consumers as botanical artwork became more attractive and ornamental.
It was during this period that Jane came of age. Her mother died when Jane' was 12 and her father 5 years later. Jane faced serious fiscal difficulties and started to write to earn a living. One of her first books was science fiction, The Mummy! A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century, which was published anonymously in 1827 and became a best seller.
British Wild Flowers - Plate 18: 1. Field Chickwee 2. Corn Cockle 3. Great Stitchwort 4. Ragged Robin 5. German Catchfly, Jane Wells Louden, hand colored lithograph, 3rd edition, London, 1859
Jane was a prolific writer throughout her lifetime. After she married renowned landscape gardener and horticultural writer, John Claudius Loudon, Jane switched genres and started to study botany seriously. Our lithographs are from two of her most important botanical works: British Wild Flower, and The Ladies' Flower-Garden of Ornamental Greenhouse Plants. Loudon’s botanical publications appealed to a wider audience than previous botanical works, and they were purchased primarily for the aesthetic appeal of her floral illustrations.
We are delighted to display the work of two resilient women who, albeit forced by necessity, used their considerable artistic talent, observational skills, and entrepreneurial skills to craft a life for themselves and their families that, in turn, left a scientific legacy for the world.