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Oxford’s Botanical Garden by Artweeks printmaker Alexandra Buckle

The Indiana Jones of Botanical Illustration

It’s Open Gardens season and as the weather brightens, you can expect to see a broad palette of colour in the flowerbeds across the county
Echinops from Ferdinand Bauer © Ferdinand Bauer: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

"His drawings reveal the delicate beauty and fragility of flowers, paired with close-up forensic observations of their anatomical arrangements."

Esther Lafferty


If you dig down to the roots of our most famous Oxford institutions you’ll find plants.

The obvious place paying homage to the green and the good is Oxford’s Botanic Garden, which was founded nearly 400 years ago. A visit to its glasshouses can introduce you to plant specimens from around the globe, but more surprising is the key part that an interest in horticulture played in the origins of the Ashmolean. First opening its doors in 1683, the Ashmolean was established to house a cabinet of curiosities given to the University of Oxford as a resource six years earlier. This collection of cultural artefacts and specimens of natural history had been gathered by The Tradescants, who were gardeners to King Charles I and Henrietta Maria. This father and son pair had travelled the world from North Africa to North America looking for new plant species, transporting them back to England and cultivating them in their Lambeth garden. And as a sideline to these plant-collecting expeditions, they gathered the miscellaneous rarities that were the core of the original Ashmolean Museum.

Contemporary botanical illustration by Artweeks artist Dianne Frank


The 18th century was a golden age of botanical exploration, a period of increasing interest in horticulture and highly desired exotic species, many of which became perennials of the English flower garden. This month, the Bodleian Library has a display in the Weston Hall to show a sample of its own botanical treasures: a series of 1000 intricate and annotated sketches, widely regarded as one of the world’s finest sets of botanical illustrations.

In the latter quarter of the 18th century, the third Professor of Botany at Oxford University, John Sibthorp, set off to the eastern Mediterranean to undertake a botanical survey during which he was primarily hoping to identify medicinal plants used in Greece and the Middle East. He took with him the Austrian illustrator Ferdinand Bauer, and the two men recorded and collected a large number of new animal and plant specimens, bringing their knowledge and specimens back to an avid English audience. This detailed record included hundreds of hitherto unknown species, each accompanied by botanical illustrations that brought the plants to life on the page, and the publication of The Flora Graeca was one of the greatest botanical works ever produced.

Professor Sibthorp assembled the descriptions and printing plates, but died in 1796, before publication. He left an endowment in his will for the completion of the project in a series of ten volumes. This was an enormous task which took 40 years to complete – rather more than the estimated 11. Only 25 sets were printed in the first instance and the price of the finished series of volumes was more than five times the average man’s wage.

The sets included 966 of Bauer’s extraordinary watercolours. These had been transferred on to copper plates by experienced botanical engravers and the unprecedented quality of the original images, engravings and meticulous hand-colourings is clear when you see the printed version alongside Bauer’s original watercolours – treasures that have been in the Bodleian for over 200 years and a case of which are excitingly on show to the public until 9th July.

Bauer was both a research scientist and an artist, and a skilled draughtsman recording a perfect diagrammatic representation of the smallest details of plants to help the world reach a deeper understanding of the botanical specimens he described. With an aesthetic eye that went well beyond mere description, his drawings reveal the delicate beauty and fragility of flowers, paired with close-up forensic observations of their anatomical arrangements.

However, it is the way he approached his art that is most fascinating: Bauer developed a highly individual ‘Painting by Numbers’ technique to record the colours of specimens in the field. Moving from place to place, often quickly and in challenging environments, Bauer was restricted in the amount of painting materials he could carry with him. While observing live specimens he made only basic pencil sketches on paper (which was unusual for a travelling artist) and he collected and dried others to draw at a later date, often much later. This technique, however, presented a particular challenge of colour fidelity as most animals and plants lose their hue and vibrancy once they are no longer alive. And so, to remind himself of the living colours that would be lost, Bauer annotated each of his field drawings with numerical colour codes from a painted colour chart he had created to carry with him. Using his colour reference system Bauer then painted his illustrations with perfect colour accuracy back in Oxford, in Cowley House which is now part of St Hilda’s College. Each apparently took about a day and a half to produce.

Ferdinand’s brother Franz (who was official botanical painter at the Botanical gardens at Kew) is the only other significant natural history artist who is known to have used this kind of system, and whilst Franz is believed to have worked with up to 140 numbers, Ferdinand developed a far more complex system with as many as 1000 colours for his later expeditions.

Only one of these colour charts is still in existence – an early version that was probably used by both brothers was found at the Madrid Botanical Gardens in 1999 – and research is underway in Oxford to identify the pigments Bauer used for the Flora Graeca watercolours, both those available at the time and others he created himself. Using modern analytical spectroscopy and advanced hyperspectral imaging technology (initially developed by astrophysicists to study the colour of stars) it is hoped that these pigments can one day be cross-referenced with the codes in Bauer’s field sketches to enable the creation of a historically-accurate reconstruction of the Flora Graeca’s lost colour chart.

The Painting by Numbers display case is free to view in the Blackwell Hall of The Bodleian’s Weston Library, Broad Street, Oxford until 9th July.


Top Image – Oxford’s Botanical Garden by Artweeks printmaker Alexandra Buckle

Below – Echinops from Ferdinand Bauer © Ferdinand Bauer: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

Bottom  Contemporary botanical illustration by Artweeks artist Dianne Frank


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