The place of natural history illustration is often overlooked in traditional histories of art and visual culture. But images of the natural world created by such renowned artists as Dürer and Leonardo, lesser-known figures Hoefnagel, Ligozzi, and natural history illustrators Catesby and Ehret, hold an important place in the intersection of art and science. This course offers new perspectives on the ways in which nature has been viewed, drawn, and illustrated in books from the early Renaissance to modern times and examines the making and function of such images. Teaching, combining lectures and object sessions, will be based on selected artists, their works and associated books from each of six main topics: the meaning of Ad Vivum; Cabinets of Curiosity, Paper Museums and Florilegia; Gardens and the Age of Discovery; Romanticism, East & West; Victorian to Modern.

Educational aims

The course will focus on natural history illustration to emphasise the role that illustrations of the natural world play in the history of science and visual culture. Examining different techniques, methods, observational and pictorial practices, it will look at the multiple ways in which natural history illustration was used in the development and production of art and scientific knowledge.

Object sessions will take place in the Senate House Special Collections, the Linnean Society, and the Natural History Museum. These unparalleled collections of specimens, preparatory and finished drawings, proofs and published books will help to interpret the materiality of the objects in the context of their scientific content, the culture of collecting and the technical and economic imperatives of publishing large format natural history atlases.

Learning outcomes

By the end of the module students will be able to:

  • Identify different media and supports used in natural history illustration (e.g. graphite, chalk, pen and ink, pencil, watercolour, bodycolour; vellum, paper, wood panel)
  • Analyse the status of original works (e.g. items for curiosity cabinets, still lives, scientific records, models for printed plates)
  • Critically evaluate the concept of ad vivum and ‘authoritative’ likenesses
  • Recognise stylistic trends in natural history imagery
  • Identify different print-making technologies (and the application of colour) used for natural history illustration, assess the consequences for scientific and aesthetic content, and recognise publishing strategies and audiences for natural history books

Suggested reading

  • Bailey, K., 2019, John Reeves: Pioneering Collector of Chinese Plants and Botanical Art, Suffolk (Acc Art Books) 
  • Blunt, W., and Stearn, W. T., 1994, The Art of Botanical Illustration, new & enlarged edn Woodbridge (Antique Collector’s Club Ltd)   
  • Egmond, F., 2017, An Eye for Detail: Images of Plants and Animals in Science, 1500–1630, London (Reaktion Books) 
  • Dalrymple, W., 2019, Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting for the East India Company, London (exh. cat., Wallace Collection) 
  • Endersby, J., 2008, Imperial Nature: Joseph Hooker and the Practices of Victorian Science, Chicago (University of Chicago Press): chapter 4 (‘Seeing’, pp. 112–1)
  • Huxley, R., 2007, The Great Naturalists, London (Thames & Hudson in association with the Natural History Museum, London)
  • Kusukawa, S., 2012, Picturing the Book of Nature: Image, Text, and Argument in Sixteenth-Century Human Anatomy and Medical Botany, Chicago (University of Chicago Press) 
  • McBurney, H., 2021, Illuminating Natural History. The Art and Science of Mark Catesby, London (Paul Mellon Centre/Yale): chapter 3 (‘Catesby’s Publications’, pp. 69-101) & chapter 4 (‘Catesby as Artist’, pp. 103-145)
  • O’Malley, T., and Meyers, A. R. W., 2008, The Art of Natural History: Illustrated Treatises and Botanical Paintings, 1400-1850, Washington (Yale University Press)
  • Stearn, W. T., 1990, Flower Artists of Kew, London (Herbert Press) 
  • Twyman, M., 1999, The British Library Guide to Printing: History and Techniques, 2ndimpression, Toronto (University of Toronto Press)