There is so much more than botanical sketchbooks in this volume that the title does it an injustice. This is one of those treasure troves of a book where every page brings a new delight, new fascination and new interest – Botanical Sketchbooks by Helen and William Bynum
Quite simply, the book is a collection of pages from the botanical sketchbooks of a myriad of botanical artists showing, in the main, those early drawings, early recordings which all artists do in preparation for a complete work later on in the better conditions of their studio. Even at this level it is fascinating to see how the various artists worked with pencil or ink sketches and added notes for colour and reminders of where and when a plant was seen and, with some, entries more akin to diary notes and all are fascinating.
It is the range of artists, the breadth of plants from those local to us to the most exotic imaginable, the worldwide countries included from South Africa to South America, Australia to China and, it seems, everywhere any anywhere in between. The collection is truly eclectic and each entry seems to open a window into a person, a plant, a time and a place all fascinating and beautiful. This book went far, far, far beyond my expectations and I enjoyed it thoroughly. I am not an artist and one need not be to enjoy this book as its contents range so well beyond botanical art that it will have a general appeal to anybody with an interest in gardening. I recommend it highly.
The authors, Helen and William Bynum, historians of science and medicine, present over 80 artists from around the world from the 15th to the 20th century organised into four main sections, each with its own set of sub-sections, which serve to group the artists in a manner more accessible to the reader. Each entry is relatively short with copious space given to the illustrations which are the heart of the book and these are the raw, immediate and spontaneous notes and sketches of the artists which, of course, are all material we would never see but that the authors sourced them from various repositories and libraries – the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew being a major source of their material.
There is an endless stream of interesting people, places and plants which will fascinate the reader and open the door to other times and ways. Pierre Joseph Redoute left his home in Belgium at the age of thirteen and spent the next ten years of his life as an itinerant artist! John Doody was transported to Australia following his conviction for forgery but was immediately taken on by Captain William Paterson to record the natural history of the Norfolk Islands. Ferdinand Bauer seems to have been the first to “paint by numbers” as he developed a colour chart which he brought with him and used it to record the colour of plants in the field and could then refer to it on return to his studio where he had notes on how to recreate that colour accurately. Francis Bauer was the first resident botanical artist at Kew Gardens with a salary of £300 per annum and had the title “Botanick painter to His Majesty”. William Hood Fitch was brought to Kew by William Hooker and, along with his work at Kew, contributed almost 3,000 illustrations to Curtis’s Botanical Magazine and has a total of 12,000 of his images published.
Albrect Durer’s “The Great Piece of Turf” is one of the few final paintings included in the book and it is truly both beautiful and captivating and is an example of the present day approach in botanical art to present faithfully accurate depictions of plants in a beautiful manner, “finding a balance between the realistic depiction of plants and the artist’s aesthetic vision”.
[Botanical Sketchbooks, Helen and William Bynum, Thames & Hudson, London, 2017, Hardback, 296 pages, £29.95, ISBN: 978-0-500-51881-6]
Available to purchase online at Thames & Hudson