Botan­i­cal il­lus­tra­tions

In a dig­i­tal age, dis­cover why bud­ding botanists still find tra­di­tional il­lus­tra­tions in­dis­pens­able when it comes to iden­ti­fy­ing Bri­tain’s wild­flow­ers.

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - Contents - By Alex Morss

Why the de­tailed work of skilled artists re­mains in­dis­pens­able in an age of high-qual­ity dig­i­tal pho­tog­ra­phy

While cling­ing to a cliff edge, half­way up one of Bri­tain's top wild­flower won­der­lands, an ac­com­plished botanist by my side of­fered me some be­wil­der­ing ad­vice: “Steer clear of any­thing with draw­ings – if you find pic­tures, you’re in trou­ble.”

This bruised my ears like a mower raz­ing an orchid meadow. Was she gen­uinely telling me to avoid plant il­lus­tra­tions? Con­fused, I gazed at the hefty new plant book that my guide had just wedged into my hand. At last, I caught her sym­pa­thetic grin. She had spent half a cen­tury ex­am­in­ing plants and their il­lus­tra­tions and was well aware that, once you reach a cer­tain level, im­ages are only used when it be­comes par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult to iden­tify species. If you're hav­ing to con­sult the draw­ings, it means you've got a tricky case on your hands. Art re­mains vi­tal to nat­u­ral­ists wish­ing to un­der­stand and iden­tify the wildlife sur­round­ing us.

Un­der­stand­ing il­lus­tra­tion

At the time, like many an as­pir­ing botanist, I was ner­vously want­ing to ven­ture beyond the ba­sic pic­ture keys and learn new beau­ties via a beefy book – Clive Stace’s New Flora of the Bri­tish Isles – more of­ten af­fec­tion­ately re­ferred to as ‘Scary Stace’. All the wild­flow­ers and ferns found around the Bri­tish Isles are con­tained within this in­tim­i­dat­ing 5cm-deep text key. For se­ri­ous botanists, it is gospel. How­ever, many plant

lovers of­ten only ar­rive at the tome af­ter stum­bling for years through a labyrinth of pho­tog­ra­phy books, web­sites and so­cial me­dia, vainly search­ing for an ap­prox­i­mate match, to help them iden­tify which of about 2,000 wild flow­ers they’re look­ing at.

Rel­a­tively few il­lus­tra­tors achieve the high stan­dards that nat­u­ral­ists crave. Many of us sketch in our own field jour­nals but we all de­pend upon greater artists to help us learn. To por­tray wildlife for il­lus­tra­tive keys re­quires an elu­sive cross­over of art and sci­ence: painstak­ingly ac­cu­rate artis­tic skill in draw­ing, shad­ing and ren­der­ing, part­nered with a rig­or­ous sci­en­tific dis­ci­pline and a solid un­der­stand­ing of which dis­tin­guish­ing fea­tures of a species should be mag­ni­fied.

Peo­ple have re­lied on plant draw­ings for cen­turies – from an­cient Greek vases and 15th-cen­tury herbals (carved wooden board books, still held at Kew Gar­dens in Lon­don) to Al­brecht Durer’s ex­quis­ite stud­ies and Leonardo da Vinci’s chalk sketches. But is this tra­di­tional sci­en­tific art form as rel­e­vant as it once was? With the de­cline of botany de­grees and re­peated laments that we are be­com­ing de­tached from na­ture, good nat­u­ral il­lus­tra­tion can pro­vide a step­ping stone to rekin­dling in­ter­est in our nat­u­ral legacy.

Learn­ing curve

Mar­garet Stevens, for­mer pres­i­dent of the So­ci­ety of Botan­i­cal Artists (SBA) and co-au­thor of the Hand­book of Plant Forms for Botan­i­cal Artists, fore­warned that stu­dents would have to hunt high and low for botany as even a part of a de­gree course to­day. Un­less some­thing rad­i­cal hap­pens, il­lus­tra­tors hold­ing a BSc in botany would be­come “as ex­tinct as the dodo.”

Some na­tive plant iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and il­lus­tra­tion cour­ses and work­shops are still of­fered by the Field Stud­ies Coun­cil, as well as Kew, and there are also a hand­ful of post­grad­u­ate op­por­tu­ni­ties. In sum­mer 2018, the As­so­ci­a­tion of Bri­tish Botan­i­cal Artists hosted its first an­nual ex­hi­bi­tion of na­tive plant art, spark­ing re­newed in­ter­est.

“Il­lus­tra­tions and pho­tos are both use­ful for iden­ti­fi­ca­tion,” says Kew’s botan­i­cal artist and au­thor Christa­bel King. “Botan­i­cal art and il­lus­tra­tion con­tinue to be fairly pop­u­lar, whether or not they are in fash­ion.”

Botany spe­cial­ist at con­ser­va­tion char­ity Plantlife, Trevor Dines, agrees there may have been a demise in botan­i­cal knowl­edge over re­cent decades, with the sta­tus of wild plants be­ing re­duced to a “soft, slightly outof-fo­cus back­ground to more charis­matic an­i­mal species. Things have im­proved a bit in the last few years,” he adds, “but bring­ing plants to wider au­di­ences is dif­fi­cult.”

“I still love the paint­ings of mints – you can al­most smell them on the page.”

En­cour­ag­ingly, though, a YouGov poll on be­half of Plantlife found that 70 per cent wanted to know more about wild plants, so it ap­pears there is still an ap­petite to learn.

Trevor cred­its the botan­i­cal il­lus­tra­tors of The Wild Flow­ers of Bri­tain and North­ern Europe for in­spir­ing his early for­ays into plant iden­ti­fi­ca­tion. “The paint­ings cap­ture the essence of each species per­fectly, but man­age to be ex­u­ber­ant and cel­e­bra­tory at the same time. I still love the paint­ings of mints – you can al­most smell them on the page. The in­cred­i­bly sub­tle dif­fer­ences be­tween each species are there, laid bare to see but al­most im­per­cep­ti­ble – it’s botan­i­cal art of the high­est skill.”

Closer in­spec­tion

When shin­ing a spot­light on finer de­tails, il­lus­tra­tion fre­quently trumps pho­tog­ra­phy. “While cam­eras can cap­ture these fea­tures, there’s of­ten too much back­ground noise to the im­ages,” Trevor con­cludes. “Only with the skill of an artist can they be iso­lated, high­lighted and con­trasted to bring out the es­sen­tial char­ac­ter of each species.”

Ros Ben­nett has taught hun­dreds of botany stu­dents with the Field Stud­ies Coun­cil and else­where. “I value good botan­i­cal il­lus­tra­tions as a teach­ing tool,” Ros says. “I al­ways en­cour­age be­gin­ners to use pic­ture guides in com­bi­na­tion with the sci­en­tific keys, when­ever pos­si­ble, fo­cus­ing on the di­ag­nos­tic fea­tures. One of the best ways to un­der­stand the struc­ture

of a plant, es­pe­cially its flow­ers, is not only to ob­serve them closely but to have a go at draw­ing what you see. Un­for­tu­nately, not all il­lus­tra­tors are equally as ob­ser­vant or draw pre­cisely what they see,” she con­tin­ues. “If they are un­aware of the sig­nif­i­cance of a fea­ture, they can eas­ily over­look it, and many in­dulge in a de­gree of artis­tic li­cence. Il­lus­tra­tive er­rors as­so­ci­ated with in­flo­res­cences are com­monly found in some of our most pop­u­lar field guides!”

In skilled hands

Ros par­tic­u­larly com­mends the late Stella Ross-Craig for un­beat­able ac­cu­racy. RossCraig’s work, how­ever – which runs to many vol­umes – is sadly now out of print.

Dr Tim Rich, au­thor of Cru­cifers of Bri­tain and Ire­land, a field study guide for the se­ries pub­lished by the Botan­i­cal So­ci­ety of Bri­tain & Ire­land re­veals he ended up us­ing many of his own sketches both for this and for his sub­se­quent vol­ume on gen­tians: “When I started writ­ing Cru­cifers, no-one was go­ing to pay for an il­lus­tra­tor for a book by an un­known 21-year-old. For­tu­nately, I did also get some help from real artists.”

The for­mer Head of Vas­cu­lar Plants at the Na­tional Mu­seum of Wales, Tim spe­cialises in Bri­tain’s most chal­leng­ing plant groups, in­clud­ing hawk­weeds and white­beams. He pushes the bound­aries of tax­on­omy, of­ten in re­mote lo­ca­tions or ex­treme en­vi­ron­ments, some­times need­ing to de­scribe new species to sci­ence. “I think I am a rub­bish artist!” he in­sists. “But draw­ing has been a ne­ces­sity. When I was learn­ing, I tried pic­ture books ini­tially, then be­gan to use a key, which I found more ef­fi­cient. But I of­ten still needed to see an il­lus­tra­tion,” he ac­knowl­edges. He is dis­mis­sive of dig­i­tal iden­ti­fi­ca­tion apps. “None that I have seen are good enough.”

Tim’s favourite il­lus­tra­tor is Bo Moss­berg, who il­lus­trated the com­pre­hen­sive Scan­di­na­vian Den Nya Nordiska Flo­ran (which in­cludes about 90 per cent of Bri­tish plants, too). “Bo drew them all in the field. Noth­ing else to­day touches them. And the pic­tures are so good, you don’t need to read the Scan­di­na­vian text.”

Botanist and writer Phil Gates sug­gests that he has seen a de­cline in tra­di­tional botan­i­cal knowl­edge and skills, with the clas­si­cal as­pects rarely taught in the way they once were. “But I think there has been a big resur­gence in in­ter­est in botany over the last few years,” he adds. “I think a sig­nif­i­cant part of this is due to dig­i­tal pho­tog­ra­phy and so­cial me­dia. You

only need to visit the highly suc­cess­ful #wild­flow­er­hour hash­tag on Twit­ter to see how ef­fec­tive this is. In a way, so­cial me­dia and dig­i­tal pho­tog­ra­phy have de­vel­oped into 21st-cen­tury nat­u­ral his­tory so­ci­eties.”

Many nat­u­ral­ists start out ca­su­ally flick­ing through a na­ture guide un­til we think we recog­nise a plant. But the more ef­fi­cient and re­li­able way to nav­i­gate a field key is to find the fam­ily first, by iden­ti­fy­ing a very sim­ple set of di­ag­nos­tic fea­tures – the flower shape; the num­ber of petals or sepals; the num­ber of male and fe­male plant parts, and the po­si­tion of the ovary.

To then de­ter­mine the genus and species, we must of­ten check more chal­leng­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics and con­front more ob­scure jar­gon. Here, good il­lus­tra­tions ex­plain fine dif­fer­ences in the shape or ar­range­ment of leaves, stems, veins; the de­tail and po­si­tion of bracts, thorns and wings, and the in­flo­res­cence struc­ture – for ex­am­ple, a cyme, spike, pan­i­cle, um­bel or corymb.

Vi­tal re­source

For the hard­est species and plants not in bloom, sim­ple il­lus­tra­tions of crit­i­cal fea­tures are un­beat­able, iden­ti­fy­ing hair di­rec­tion, cross sec­tions or ribs on seeds. In the more ad­vanced books, how­ever, like Stace, the mere pres­ence of draw­ings can sig­nal metaphor­i­cal deep wa­ter. Im­ages lurk among the con­found­ing mi­crospecies, atyp­i­cal apomic­tics, sub species, hy­brids, cu­ri­ous fruits and ob­scure rar­i­ties. The im­ages haunt (but also help) the pages of chal­leng­ing docks, roses, bram­bles fes­cues, fu­mi­to­ries, elms and oraches along with an ar­ray of dop­pel­gängers in the car­rot fam­ily.

In a dig­i­tal age, words and pho­tos can fail us, while botan­i­cal art re­li­ably soothes a nat­u­ral­ist’s woes. It is easy to over­look the quiet value of this cen­turies-old re­source. When you’re cling­ing to a cliff with heavy books in your bag, hav­ing fewer pages or a light­weight phone app may well ap­peal but, at some point, you will need to con­sult those all-im­por­tant sketches.

Words and pho­tos can fail us – botan­i­cal art re­li­ably soothes a nat­u­ral­ist's woes.

Art­work de­pict­ing ash dieback by con­tem­po­rary artist Lizzie Harper, who cre­ates botan­i­cal and sci­en­tific il­lus­tra­tions.

Left: Tuft ofCowslips, painted by Al­brecht Dürer in 1526. Be­low: the work of botan­i­cal il­lus­tra­tor Stella Ross-Craig is renowned.

Christa­bel King's de­tailed draw­ings can be found in The Kew book of Botan­i­cal Il­lus­tra­tion. Bot­tom: plants even grace an­cient Greek vases.

Botan­i­cal il­lus­tra­tions, such as this hazel art­work by Lizzie Harper, can high­light minute de­tails in a way pho­tog­ra­phy would strug­gle to em­u­late.

Clock­wise from left: art­work by Bo Moss­berg – he drew all the il­lus­tra­tions for his book whilst out in the field; Lizzie Harper de­tails a rough hawk­bit, Leontodon hispidus; in­tri­cate, close-up draw­ings of Rumex fruit­ing tepals from Clive Stace's The New Flora of the Bri­tish Isles; Dr Tim Rich's sketches of gen­tian flow­ers.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.