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Library & Archives

6 Posts authored by: Andrea Hart
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Another year and another new theme and chance for the Library & Archives to show off and celebrate our wonderful artwork collections! Throughout the centuries women have made significant contributions to natural history art - all of whom shared a fascination and enthusiasm for the natural world. Drawn for a variety of reasons and using a rich mix of artistic techniques, the new theme of Women Artists presents another captivating cross-section of the artwork collections at the Natural History Museum.

 

Over the next 16 months, the specially designated cabinets in the Images of Nature Gallery will showcase the artworks of some of the best women natural history artists spanning the last four centuries. The work of over 60 different women artists, many on public display for the first time, will feature illustrations ranging from the delightful Tawny owls by Sarah Stone (ca. 1760-1844) through to the colourful Hawaiian fishes of E. Gertrude Norrie (active 1900s) and contemporary botanical artists such as Norma Gregory and Olga Makrushenko.

 

 

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The new theme also sees the publication of the fourth book in the Images of Nature series. Titled Women Artists, it features the artwork from over 100 women artists in the Library & Archives collections.

 

The exhibition opens on Saturday 8th March which also happens to be International Womens Day - a day which is celebrated in many different ways to recognise the achievements of women but also to raise awareness of the many social, economic, political situations worldwide affecting women.

 

Public access to the Gallery is free.

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Flora Sinensis, fructus floresque Humillime Porrigens, ... &c. / R. P. Michaele Boym

Matthaeus Rictius, Vienna, 1656.

 

The Flora Sinensis is one of the rarest and earliest European works on the natural history of China. It was published in Vienna in 1656 by the Polish Jesuit missionary Father Michael Piotr Boym (1612-1659), who spent over a decade in China as a successful missionary scientist.

 

Boym first travelled to China in 1643, after the fall of the Ming dynasty and the establishment of the new Qing dynasty, to study, promote Christianity and introduce Chinese science to Europe. However his diplomatic mission to convert the court of the last Chinese ruler of the Ming dynasty to Christianity was seen as a threat to the relations with the Manchus, and in 1651, upon his return to Europe, he was placed under house arrest in Goa. Boym escaped and travelled back to Europe: to Venice, and then Lisbon. In 1656 he returned to China to continue his work, but died three years later in the province of Kuang si.

 

During his travels he corresponded and reported on the various flora, fauna and customs of the numerous countries through which he travelled. An excellent cartographer, Boym also prepared many maps of mainland China and South-East Asia. All of his efforts contributing greatly to Sinology (the study of China and Chinese topics).

 

The Flora Sinensis remains his best known publication. It contains seventeen botanical plates of cultivated fruits of south-eastern China, five zoological plates of animals (including a hippopotamus!) and a plate depicting a Chinese stele (an inscribed monument). For each of the plates Boym gives the names of the species in both Chinese and Latin. He also provides an accurate description of each plant, including their medicinal properties, in the Latin text that accompanies each plate. Originally published uncoloured, hand-coloured copies such as this one are of great rarity.

 

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Lychee (Li-Ci, Lum-yen)

Rhubarb (Rhabarbarum)

Pineapple (Fan-Po-Lo-Mie)

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Pepper (Piper)

Latin text description of Boym's

accompanying Pepper illustration

A stylised leopard

 

 

Boym's published works were influential and frequently cited by other authors who wrote about China, including Athanasius Kircher's 1667 publication titled China monumentis in which similarities in the plates can be seen. It is interesting to note the anthropomorphic (human-like) features that the animal illustrations have been given.

 

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Boym's hippopotamus Kircher's hippopotamus
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Boym's squirrel-type animal chasing a turtleKircher's squirrel-type animal

 

 

 

 

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The NHM Library copy is bound in an old vellum binding which has warped quite significantly overtime due to its age and sensitivity to temperature and humidity. However the quality of the paper remains excellent, considering it is such an old book. That said, the numerous tiny holes scattered over the front and inside board look like they may have made a tasty lunch for an insect at some point .....

 

 

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"Evidently a record of weights" - a somewhat curious title but not a surprising one for this manuscript volume from the Banksian collection in the Botany Library from the bequest of Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820).

 

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It is assumed that they are the weights of some of the visitors to Banks' residence at 32 Soho Square where he lived from 1777 until his death. It was also in 1777 that Banks began his long association with Jonas Dryander who's name appears in the front of the volume.

 

This alphabeticaly arranged manuscript notebook of people's weights was started with some vigour on St. Valentines Day in 1778 with that of Lord Athlone. The final "weigh-in" recorded was Mr Amiot in August 1814.

 

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Lord Athlone's weight is given as "13 8 1/2" and is immediatedly followed by his wife, Lady Athlone, who weighed in on the same day almost 2 stones heavier at "15 10 1/2".

 

The manuscript also charts Banks' own weight and those members of his family namely his mother "Mrs Banks of Chelsea", his wife "Mrs Banks" and his sister, Sarah Sofia "Miss Banks" who lived with them in Soho Square. Once Banks became a Baronet in 1771 his entry changed accordingly to "Sir Joseph Banks" and his wife to "Lady Banks".

 

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The volume is interesting for many reasons in that it documents some of the guests to Banks' house and include many important and influential people of the time. They include :

 

Alexander Dalrymple (1737-1808), Scottish geographer and Hydrographer of the British Admiralty (13 stone, 2 pounds on Oct. 29, 1779)

 

Georg Forster (1754-1794), German naturalist who travelled on Cook's second voyage to the Pacific (10 stone, 3 pounds on Febr. 27, 1778)

 

Abbe Fontana (1730-1805), founder of modern toxinology (10 stone, 13 pounds on Aug. 18, 1778)

 

Charles Greville (1749-1809), MP for Warwick and authority on tropical plant gardening and collector of antiquities (10 stone, 6 1/4 pounds on Feb 14, 1778). On a return visit on March 19, 1781 he was slightly heavier at 10 stone, 9 pounds.

 

Nikolaus von Jacquin (1727-1817), eminent scientist who studied medicine, chemistry and botany (10 stone, 4 pounds on June 19, 1789 with an increase of 2 pounds upon his next visit on Dec.27, 1789).

 

James Lee (1715-1795), Scottish nurseryman (12 stone, 8 1/2 on Sept. 20, 1778)

 

Reverend John Lightfoot (1735-1788), English conchologist and botanist (12 stone on May 11, 1778).

 

Major James Rennell (1742-1830), English geography and pioneer of Oceanography (upon his first visit on March 20, 1781 he weighted 9 stone 11. The most weighed visitor at a total of eight weigh-ins, his final entry on April 21, 1789 was 9 stone, 4 1/2 pounds).

 

Carl Peter Thunberg (1743-1828), Swedish naturalist and apostle of Linnaeus (9 stone, 12 pounds on Dec. 25, 1778)

 

The weights are not all of humans though, Mab the dog appears three times and a Terrapin from the Galapagos also features twice in the volume :

 

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It is not clear why the weights of visitors (and animals) were documented, but Banks was regarded as a born adminstrator and valued classificatory order. In December 1799, he had compiled a set of tables of money, weights and measures of all the trading nations at the time and his interest in the international standardisation of weights and measures saw him invited to Paris by the French Government to confer with the Institut on the fundamental units of Weights and Measures.

 

Banks also performed the chairing role on the British Government's committee to review Britain's system of weights and measures from 1817-1819. Following their report, the imperial system of weights and measures was introduced in 1824.

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Tonight sees the Museum's Night Safari Halloween Special where Lisa Di Tommaso, our Earth Sciences Assistant Librarian, will be offering up some of the Library's more spooky, mythical and Halloween-related holdings. Below are a selection of our weird and wonderful wonders!

 

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Mythical monsters of the two and four-legged variety from Ulyssis Aldrovandi's Monstorium historia (1642).

 

 

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A p-terrifying Pterosaur by Neave Parker (1910-1961)

 

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Actaea pachypoda (also known as Doll's eyes

A not so scary orchid by William King (fl.1760s)

or White Baneberry) by William King (fl.1760s)

 

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Ghosts of the fungal variety? Lycoperdon colifornize

by Mary Turner (c.1800)

A black raven from John Gould's Introduction to the

Birds of Great Britain (1862)

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All change!

Posted by Andrea Hart Apr 12, 2011

As the new Images of Nature, art gallery has been open for 3 months now, it was time to install the second rotation of drawings from our Reeves collection of Chinese botanical and zoological drawings. It all went very smoothly and all of the illustrations and their description panels were in place with some time to spare before the Museum opened its doors to the Easter holiday crowds.

 

Below is a small selection of the new drawings that are now on display and are freely available to view. We hope you like them!

 

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Top left : Purple heron Ardea purpurea

Top right : Traveller's palm Ravenala madagascariensis

Bottom left : Camellia Camellia japonica

Bottom right : Slow loris Nycticebus coucang

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Linnaeus, sex and botany

 

Whilst the study of plants would appear a harmless scientific pursuit, during the late 18th century much controversy was caused due to the allusion to its sexual nature and the theory that plants, like animals, reproduced sexually. Although the sexual system of classification put forward by Carl Linnaeus (1707-1768) in his 1735 publication Systema Naturae was not the first to propose a sexual hypothesis in plants, he was the first to establish a complete system of classification on it.

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Above : The original drawing by Georg Ehret (1708-1780) to illustrate Linnaeus' sexual system. It was first published in Linnaeus' Genera Plantarum, first edition, 1737.

 

Linnaeus' theory was based upon counting the numbers of male and femlae reproductive organs inside the flowers. Descriptions such as "the calyx is the bride chamber in which the stamina and pistilla solemnize their nuptials" and analogies between humans and plants in statements such as "the filaments the spermatic vessels" and "the anthers the testes" served to highlight the reproductive floral parts of the plants.

 

The work was met with some resistance and by some deemed unnatural, in particular the German botanist Johann Georg Siegesbeck (1686-1755) who claimed it to be "repugnant and immoral". Smellie, in his chapter on The sexes of plants in the Encyclopaedia Britannica (p.653, 1771) wrote that "a man would not naturally expect to meet with disgusting strokes of obscenity in a system of botany" and that "men or philosophers can smile at the nonsense and absurdity of such obscene gibberish ; but it is easy to guess what effects it may have upon the young and thoughtless".

 

For others however such as Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), it inspired poetry :

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This verse from the Love of Plants (Darwin, 1790) is the description of tumeric where "one male and one female inhabit this flower ; but there are besides four imperfect males, or filaments without anthers upon them, called by Linnaeus eunuchs".

 

Although many were shocked by the comparison with human sexuality, it was a very practical system of classifying plants and became accepted by renowned botanists including Nikolaus von Jacquin (1727-1817).

 

Linnaeus, Ehret and the frontispiece

 

The original illustration used to demonstrate Linnaeus' sexual system and published in the first edition of his Genera Plantarum in 1737 was drawn by Georg Ehret (1708-1770). Born in Heidelberg, Germany, Ehret's unique style and clarity of plant illustration was sought by specialists for the purposes of illustrating taxonomy and classification. This made him a perfect choice for Linnaeus as the scientific accuracy and precision of botanical illustrations are paramount in order to be able to distinguish the plants from other species and to enable correct identification. It also helped that Ehret considered himself and Linnaeus to be "the best of friends" and that when Linnaeus first showed him the new method of examining the stamens he understood it easily enough to produce the "tabella" (Ehret, 1894-5).

 

The drawing, completed by Ehret in 1736, shows the division of the vegetable world by Linnaeus into 24 classes. The 24th class were the cryptogams (plants without flowers) and in keeping with the male/female analogy were referred to by Linnaeus as "Clandestine marriage, Cryptogamia".

 

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Above : The 24th class (the Cryptogams) indicated by the letter "Z" along with Ehret's name and the date of the drawing.

nb. The letters J and Y were omitted from this alphabetical arrangement to represent Linnaeus' 24 classes.

 

Whilst the brilliance of the colour remains after almost 300 years, the illustration is also interesting as on the verso there is the pencil outline of the drawing and when held up to the light is the exact image of the watercolour image on the front. The illustration therefore has been conserved and framed in such a way so it possible to see through the paper on both sides.

 

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Above left : the completed watercolour image

Above right : the reverse image in graphite

 

 

References and further reading

 

Darwin, E. (1790-91) The botanic garden; a poem, in two parts : Part 1. Containing the economy of vegetation ; Part 2. The loves of the plants, with philosophical notes. J. Johnson : London. 2 vols.

 

Ehret, G. D. (1894-95) A memoir of Georg Dionysius Ehret. [Written by himself, and translated, with notes by E. S. Barton]. Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London. 1894-95. pp.41-58

 

Fara, P. (2003) Sex, botany and empire : the story of Carl Linnaeus and Joseph Banks. Icon Books : Cambridge. 168 pp.

 

Jarvis, C. (2007) Order out of chaos : Linnaean plant names and their types. Linnean Society of London and Natural History Museum : London. 1016 pp.

 

Smellie, W. (1768-1771) Encyclopaedia Britannica : or, a dictionary of arts and sciences compiled upon a new plan &c. A. Bell and C. MacFarquhar : Edinburgh. 3 vols.

 

Stern, W. T. (2004) Botanical Latin. David & Charles : Devon. 546 pp.