A Greek physician, Pedanius Dioscorides, who lived in the first century AD, is credited with the first illustrated book on plants. In his five volume work ‘De Materia Medica’ he painstakingly describes the appearances and medicinal properties of over five hundred plants. This manuscript remained the primary botanical reference for over five hundred years and is considered one of the most influential herbal books in history.
A number of illustrated manuscripts of the Materia Medica survive, the most famous of which is the Vienna Dioscurides (512).
Unlike many other classical authors, his works were not ‘rediscovered’ in the Renaissance, because his book simply never went out of use. As a botanical resource, it was not surpassed scientifically or artistically for nearly a thousand years when the ‘Herbarius Latinus’ was produced in Germany in 1485. At this time, botanical drawings were limited to works of monastic copyists who made drawings from other books, rather than from direct observation of nature.
In the late 18th century, the era of exploration of faraway places, both flowers and art were considered symbols of culture and refinement , and prints of animals and plants became quite popular. At the same time it became possible to make this art accessible to many through technical advances in printing; a number of magazines were issued from this time onwards, the first of which is the Curtis Botanical Magazine, published in England. This magazine is generally considered to be the foremost journal for early botanical illustration, and several others followed in Curtis’ footsteps.
William Curtis was a trained pharmacist living and working in London (at the world-renowned Kew Gardens), and he was fascinated with the plant- and insect-world. He had a large garden where he grew many exotic plants and issued his first publication in 1787. The illustrations were initially hand-coloured prints, taken from copper engravings and accompanied by a page or two of text describing the plant’s properties, history, growth characteristics, and some common names for the species. The pictures were incredibly detailed and rival a modern photograph for accuracy. Although it has gone through many changes, Curtis’ magazine is still being published today by the Kew Botanical Gardens.
Another name you will surely recognize is that of Pierre Joseph Redouté who was justly famous for his illustrations of roses.
Mary Walcott became famous in the early 20th century for her renderings of native American Wildflowers, and she is sometimes referred to as ‘the Audubon of Botany’.
Today there is a revival of interest in this art form, and there are a number of very talented modern botanical artists whose work rival that of the old masters.