Ferdinand Bauer, Banksia coccinea from Illustrationes florae Novae Hollandiae, 1813. Collection Flinders University Art Museum. Acquired with the support of the University of the Third Age in commemoration of Flinders University’s 50th anniversary. On display in exhibition Truth and Beauty: The Australian botanical works of Ferdinand Bauer, Flinders University City Gallery, State Library of South Australia, Adelaide, until February 5. In 1800 Britain might have been at war but somehow the naturalist Joseph Banks managed to persuade Earl Spencer, First Lord of the Admiralty, to spare a ship for a scientific expedition to the other side of the world.
Banks’s intention was to circumnavigate for the first time the coast of Australia and to study the plants and animals of the new colony. For him the exploration was of utmost importance. Although he was not going, he refitted the ship to his exact specifications. A special cabin was intended for living plants to be brought back to the Kew Gardens; there was a microscope on board and many books, including Banks’s copy of his Endeavour Journal from Captain James Cook’s voyage. He gave instructions that the scientists were to have sufficient time on land to complete their work.
HMS Investigator was under the command of Captain Matthew Flinders, and there were six “scientific gentlemen” on board. One of these was Ferdinand Bauer, a natural history illustrator recognised for his remarkable talent for accuracy, which was partly due to a complex colour coding system that he had devised; it enabled him to make preliminary sketches and then later complete his illustrations with the exact tone and shading.
During the voyage, he produced intricately detailed sketches of more than 2000 plants and animals, including the first European drawings of botanic specimens from South Australia. Some of these works that reveal the importance of his legacy are on display in the Adelaide exhibition Truth and Beauty: The Australian botanical works of Ferdinand Bauer.
Bauer certainly had an interesting backstory. He was born in 1760 in Austria. His father was the prince of Liechtenstein’s court painter, but by the age of one Bauer was orphaned. He was Stipple engraved on copper, handcoloured, 1813. Published 1989 by Alecto Historical Editions in association with the British Museum. 38.7cm x 25cm sent to live in a monastery where he first learned to record, in miniature, the plants in the garden. When he was about 20 he moved to Vienna to further his expertise. While there he was visited by the renowned botanist John Sibthorp of Oxford University, who was so impressed by Bauer’s work that he hired him as his natural history painter for a trip to Greece. This led to Bauer producing more than 1000 coloured drawings for the book Flora Graeca.
After his trip on the Investigator, Bauer returned to England in 1805 carrying with him 11 cases of drawings. Banks persuaded the Admiralty to pay Bauer to publish his illustrations but he was such a perfectionist that he could not find competent engravers to complete all the work. He returned to Austria and died in Vienna in 1826.
“Ferdinand Bauer is widely regarded as the world’s most accomplished botanic artist,” says Fiona Salmon, director of the Flinders University Art Museum and co-curator of Truth and Beauty. Many of the Bauer prints on display in the exhibition are in the Flinders University collection thanks to the enthusiasm of the late Lance McCarthy, a physicist at the university.
One of those works, Banksia coccinea was among the 15 prints that appeared in Bauer’s 1813 publication Illustrationes Florae Novae Hollandiae.
“It was unusual for the illustrator to also engrave the plate and hand-colour the image,” says Salmon. “Meticulous in detail and delicate in resolve, the work is of enduring scientific significance and aesthetic appeal.”