Andrea/Cara here, I have a hard act to follow this week, as on Monday Anne plied you with tea and scrumptious goodies, followed by Mary Jo hosting our birthday celebration on Wednesday, complete with cyber chocolate and champagne. By now you are all replete with sweets and good cheer . . . leaving me wondering what titillating fun I can offer.
Well, at the Wench birthday there was much mention of how you all enjoy jumping into the research rabbit holes with us—so let’s all get down and dirty on the subject of botanical illustration in early 1800s London!
As I have an art background, I’m always delighted when research leads me to a visual subject. I’m currently working on the third book of my Wrexford & Sloane historical mystery, and the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew figure into the plot. (I have to be a little careful here, as I don’t want to give away any spoilers.) I needed to know some details on botanical art of the era.
But before we burrow any deeper, allow me to pause for a bit of backstory. From some research I did for one of my older Cara Elliott romance novels, I was aware that one of the pioneers of turning the accurate depiction flora and fauna specimens into a real art form was a German woman named Maria Sibylla Merian (her art is at the top and to the right) who lived in the late 1600s. (I always love discovering that a historical woman was influential, and am happy to see that many of them are finally getting recognition—though there's still a long way to go.
Trained in art by her stepfather, the still life painter Jacob, she became fascinated by insects as a child and was one of the first artists to collect specimens and draw them from life. She gained recognition in her field and supported herself after divorcing her husband by teaching art in Amsterdam. Later in life she traveled to Surinam, in South America and published a book in 1701 on the country’s exotic insects, which earned her renown throughout Europe.
The 1700s saw the flowering of the Age of Exploration, especially in Britain, what with the East India merchant ships, the naval journeys of men like Captain Cook and the scientific expeditions funded by the Royal Society. One such voyage, a trip to the South Seas by Cook in 1769, in order to record the Transit of Venus included naturalist Sir Joseph Banks as part of the scientific crew members. ((By now many of you know Sir Joseph is a great favorite of mine for his curiosity and enthusiasm about the world around him . . . and I couldn’t resist having him make a cameo appearance in my new book)
Now, back to the rabbit hole! Banks was key in getting the Royal Botanical Gardens to commit to building a serious collections of plant specimens from around the world—and he started it by donating his own private collection brought back from his travels. As President of the Royal Society, one of England’s pre-eminent scientific institutions and informal advisor to King George III, he dispatched numerous expeditions and botanists around the world.
He also hired garden designers and —ta-da—botanical artists! (I love it when real life gives me exactly what I need for a story.) To whit, Banks was very impressed by the talent of Austrian artist Franz Bauer (in England he’s known as Francis Bauer) and hired him as “Botanick Painter to His Majesty” for the princely sum of 300 pounds per year. It turned out to be a great match. Bauer loved being at Kew, where he was constantly provided with new an interesting plants to draw and paint.
Following in the tradition of Merian, he was a stickler for accuracy and detail, but also imbued his art with a vitality that makes them not simply dry textbook renderings, but lively, inventive works of art. He was also one of the first artists to use a microscope in order to depict the anatomical structure of the plants he was drawing—which created works of great scientific value. When he died, his collection of drawing and paintings was bequeathed to King George IV and was presented to the British Museum in 1841 by Queen Victoria.
So, that’s a quick in and out on one of the many “Hmm, I wonder what information I can find on this . . .” moment that occur in planning—er, or in my case, pantsing—a book. (I’m utterly incapable of making a nice, tidy outline of how the protagonists get from point A to Point B, because I haven’t a clue until I start writing!
Since many of you expressed an interest in research rabbit holes, my question for you today is, what special subject would you like to see one of the Wenches explore? Between all of us, I’ll bet someone is thinking on your subject and just might oblige!