Term Paper: 18th C. Decorative Botanical Art

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18th C. decorative botanical art

18th Century Botanical Art

In the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, pearls were a very popular bauble with the wealthy and the royal; brought back from the explorations of the Far East and the New World and still rare, they are seen in portraits most particularly of Queen Elizabeth I, but also of other nobles. During the 18th century, exploration had taken a different tone. No longer were the intrepid crossing the oceans in search of financial wealth (or at least, not so single-mindedly as in the Age of Exploration), but rather in terms of other unique discoveries and treasures. These included new life forms, not surprising in light of the nature of the Age of Enlightenment. That age was characterized by "autonomy of reason," perfectibility and progress," "confidence in the ability to discover causality," and "principles governing nature, man and society" (Rempel undated).

The first exclusively scientific expedition set out as early as 1698 -- despatched to Australia by the British Admiralty" (Schnberger and Soehner 1960 27). To his work in hydrograpahy, meteorology and magnetism, the group's leader recorded accurate observations of flora and fauna (Schnberger and Soehner 1960 27).

Although this sort of work also led to a spate of travel books, says Schonberger and Soehner, it is also clear that science was a main pursuit, especially by the end of the century. Among others, Voltaire had made sure, by 1750, that there were few educated people who did not know of Newton's discovery. Philosopher John Locke "had denied innate ideas and derived all knowledge, opinions and behavior from sense experience. Condillac carried this to its conclusion by insisting that even perception was transformed sensation" (Rempel undated).

Anthropocentrism, to paraphrase philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, was dead. Instead, man looked outside himself for truth. "By 1750 the social sciences had already become inductive, historical, anthropological, comparative, and critical" (Rempel undated).

They had also become the province not only of men, but of women. While it cannot be said that there were many women who traveled the globe in search of new plants, it can be said that an interest in plants, often scientifically motivated, did spur the work and careers of several women of the era. Gardens were their particular art form.

Naturalism was an outgrowth of the intellectual tide change, and eighteenth century gardening followed that cultural dictum. Landscape gardens were now supposed to follow, instead of redesign, the natural terrain, although at times, Alexander Pope's "genius of the place" caused lakes to built in natural hollows and so on (Bell 1990 471).

While ladies were still expected to stay closer to home, they also were influenced by the botanical explorations of the era. In 1707, John Lawrence, writing as Charles Evelyn, wrote a book called the Lady's Recreation to encourage women to lay out orangeries, clearly a sort of planting that could not have taken place before citrus was brought back from the warmer climates (Bell 1990 476).

In addition, engravings of exotic plants, along with instructions on their culture, had begun appearing in the Lady's Magazine, or Polite Companion for the Fair Sex, by 1759-1760. "It also gave instructions as precise as, for example, to 'keep oriental hyacinth in papers till the 18th August and then dig a bed for them open to the south-east' and suggested where certain plants might be bought, as for instance the double and single 'piony' at 'Mr. Greening at Brentford'" (Bell 1990 477). That botany captured the popular imagination and held it is abundantly evident form women's letters and diaries that describe their gardening. Those same letters and diaries "corroborate the evidence we can glean from paintings -- for example, the delicate Thomas Robins paintings of flower gardens of the 1750s or the garden of the Drake-Brockman family in Kent, ca. 1745, depicting a flower border surrounding a typical classical rotunda and artificial lake in a landscape park" (Bell 1990 479).

It has already been mentioned that the creation of orangeries was considered a fitting domestic pursuit, but one that would not have been possible without the convergence of two things. One of these was the invention of ways to make air and soil warm enough for tropical and subtropical plants; the other was, of course, having a source of such plants and seeds.

The innovations in cultivation happened on both sides of the Atlantic, notably in the U.S. And England. In 1718, a hot-water heating system had been described in England by Triewald. Between 1709 and 1737, Faneuil built a "manure" heat frame in Boston; in 1720, he had built a greenhouse with glass on all sides. In 1721, Paris, France, gained a doubled span glass coldframe at the Jardin des Plantes. By 1737, gardeners in England had replaced the manure with decomposing bark, and in the Netherlands, night insulation with cloth, reed or hair was employed (SFASU Web site).

As for the explorers, Cook traversed the Pacific, bringing knowledge of the coasts of Australia and New Zealand, the Pacific Ocean and the Antarctic, and a Frenchman Bourgignon, visited China, mapping it at the same time. Another Frenchman made his way to Tahiti, the Solomon Islands and New Guinea. "In 1761 and 1769 expeditions set out from every country in Europe to observe the passage of Venus and betook themselves in all conceivable directions, from Siberia to the Cape, from California to Tahiti" (Schnberger and Soehner 1960 28).

This abundant exploration, and the return of exotic organisms, led to the problem of classifying them all so they could be adequately described to other scientists, if nothing else. Linnaeus, a Swede, was arguably the greatest naturalist of the century, with an "unrivalled gift for classification, comparable to that of Aristotle" that he used primarily in botany, although he dealt with zoology and mineralogy, also. In 1736, Linnaeus published his Systema Naturae and his Fundamenta Botanica, and a year later, he published Plantarum. In 1751, he published Philosophia Botanica, his magnus opus. Among his innovations, Linnaeus introduced the idea of sex in plants, and also devised a method for taking the parts of each plant, always in the same order, and describing them in set terms. Each plant was also given two names, that of its family and that of its species. "This method, invented for botanical purposes, he afterwards applied to the whole field of biology, and thus established the system of classification of living organisms which is still used today" (Schnberger and Soehner 1960 30).

Like an exotic seed, Linnaeus' work escaped from the laboratory. Before long, all over Europe, "the native flora was systematically studied and reproduced in copperplate" (Schnberger and Soehner 1960 30).

In addition:

The effects of this new botanical knowledge were felt even in the decorative arts, where plant forms became a favourite theme. Wild flowers, for instance, were the fashionable decoration for porcelain in the second half of the century. The china manufactory in Copenhagen presented Catherine II of Russia with an immense service on which every plant in the 'Flora Danica' had been painted, under rigorous scientific supervision (Schnberger and Soehner 1960 30).

While certainly Linnaeus was a prominent figure in scientific circles in the eighteenth century, others arguably helped push the rage for botanical themes out of the laboratory and into the life of the common citizen.

One of these people was Sir Hans Sloane. "In 1753, Sir Hans Sloane, a 92-year-old physician and the greatest collector of his time, bequeathed his accumulation of some 71,000 objects, a library and herbarium to the nation. This act of generosity led to the establishment of what is now the oldest public museum in the world," the British Museum (Geographical 2003 26+).

Sloane was an Irishman and not of noble birth. However, he had studied to be a physician in London and France, making the acquaintance of the leading scientists. "Born in 1660, Sloane traveled to London in 1679 to study chemistry with the Society of Apothecaries, and to pursue his interest in botany at the fledgling Physic Garden at Chelsea" (Sterns 2002 411+). Rather than becoming a fashionable London doctor, however, he spent three years as personal physician to the Duke of Albemarle, governor of Jamaica. "There he indulged his passion for scientific observation and collecting, the results of which he published in works on the natural history of the West Indies and the botany of Jamaica" (Geographical 2003 26+). On accepting that post, he was mindful that he could "meet withall that is extraordinary in nature in those places" (Sterns 2003 411+) and had also noted that the trip seemed as if it would "likewise to promise to be useful to me, as a Physician; many of the Antient and best Physicians have travell'd to the Places whence their Drugs were brought, to inform themselves concerning them" (Sterns 2003 411+).

When Sloane retuned to England, he married well and did become a fashionable doctor. But he also remained a scientist of note, succeeding Sir Isaac Newton as president of… [END OF PREVIEW]

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