Nelumbo lutea by Bartram
Franklinia alatamaha by Bartram
 
 
 
 

William Bartram (1739-1823)
Drawing overview
The William Bartram Drawings Collection
Exhibition and publication details
References and further reading

 

William Bartram (1739-1823)

William Bartram was the son of the Quaker farmer and nurseryman John Bartram (1699-1777) who had established a botanical garden at his home in Kingsessing, about four miles from Philadelphia. For many years John traded packets of seed of American plants to customers all over Europe. During his lifetime he was responsible for introducing up to a third of North American plants to Europe. William, like his father, became an excellent botanist and plant collector. He was also a very skilled artist and many of his drawings illustrate the plants and animals in a natural context, showing the inter-relationship and dependency between species; a depiction that was quite different from most natural history artists of the day.

Between 1773 and 1777 he travelled through the Carolinas, Georgia and East and West Florida as far as the Mississippi River. He collected plants and seeds, wrote a journal and completed drawings for his patron John Fothergill, a London physician. On his return to Philadelphia Bartram wrote his now famous work Travels through North & South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, published in 1791. The importance of this work is manifold, not least the influence it had on the Romantic poets of Europe. Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth are just two of the many poets who were influenced by Bartram’s book. The poetic imagery evoked in his writings and his rhapsodic language found its way into many well known poems. Bartram viewed the earth as an organic whole, a living unity of diverse and interdependent life forms. It was this understanding of nature that also made him so attractive to the Romantic poets.

Bartram was also a significant influence in shaping science in America in the post revolutionary era. The process of nation building and eradicating American dependence on Europe was reflected in the struggle for an American cultural and scientific identity. The study of natural science was seen as a patriotic act in which Americans themselves were discovering their natural products, identifying, classifying, describing and naming these products. In short, stamping American control over their natural history. William Bartram was very conscious of this and during his lifetime gave inspiration and encouragement to a long list of young American scientists.

Today Bartram’s Travels remains in print and continues to be read by practitioners of all disciplines of natural history and the arts. A large portion of his book is devoted to describing the lifestyle and culture of the Native Americans of the region that he travelled through. His writings are amongst the very few that give first hand knowledge of the subject. His own experiences during his travels led him to develop a great admiration of the Creek and Cherokee nations lifestyle and particularly their relationship with nature.


 

Drawing overview

 

Dionaea muscipula


This is probably the first known drawing of the plant Dionaea muscipula (bottom left corner). Bartram viewed the Venus flytrap as both wonderful and ludicrous and called it a “sportive vegetable” in reference to its carnivorous habit.

The Venus flytrap is native to a small swampy savannah area on the boarders of North and South Carolina. The nutrients obtained from the insects digested by the plant supplement the deficiencies in the soil.

 

Franklinia alatamaha

Franklinia was discovered by John and William Bartram when they travelled through Georgia in 1765. The last known siting of this plant in the wild was in 1803 and its survival in cultivation today is thanks to William Bartram who collected seed from this plant in 1776. Sir Joseph Banks placed the plant in the genus Gordonia but Bartram, after examining the characteristics, argued for it to be considered a new genus and named the plant in honour of the family friend, Benjamin Franklin.

 

 

 

The William Bartram Drawings Collection

The Bartram collection is made up of 68 drawings, the majority of them sent to John Fothergill between 1772 and 1776. Fothergill’s library, including all his artwork, was auctioned after his death in 1780. A number of lots were purchased by Sir Joseph Banks including the Bartram material and were given the Banks Mss. number of 23.

Exhibition and publication details

The drawing of Franklinia is touring between 2006-08 and featured as part of the opening exhibition of the Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary exhibition in Philadelphia, USA. It will go onto exhibit in The Missouri Historical Society; Houston Museum of Natural Science; Denver Museum of Nature & Science; Atlanta History Centre and at the Musée des Arts et Métiers, in Paris.

Most of Bartram’s drawings were reproduced in Botanical and Zoological Drawings, 1756-1788, Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society, v.74. by Joseph Ewan. All of Bartram's drawings will be reproduced in Judith Magee's 2007 publication The Art and Science of William Bartram.

References and further reading

Bartram, W. (1998) The Travels of William Bartram, Naturalist Edition, edited with an annotated index by Francis Harper. The University of Georgia Press: Georgia; London. 727pp.

Magee, J. (2007) The Art and Science of William Bartram. The Natural History Museum & Penn State University Press: Pennsylvania. 276pp.

Slaughter, T. P. (1996) The Natures of John and William Bartram : Alfred A. Knopf: New York. 304pp.