|Le Jardin Fruitier, France, 1821|
Welcome to The Small Galleon.
I'd like to begin with a brief tribute to the naturalist print, a longstanding love of mine, and quite a niche art form not usually granted attention outside of science history museums and collectors shops.
Botanical prints are the earliest examples of this genre of art, which can be dated back to the fifteenth century. During this era, so called “herbals”, books containing medicinal and culinary uses for plants, called for scientifically accurate illustrations of the plants described, usually made with wood-cut prints.
Throughout the Renaissance period and the flowering of aestheticism, art for art’s sake, naturalist print making moved from pure functionality to cater to a more aesthetic market. Commissions for works of “florigia”, expensive books cataloging exotic fruits and flowers, flourished in the 17th century. Advancements in techniques such as engraving and etching lead to greater fineness and experimentation.
By the 18th and 19th century the popularity of botanical prints had reached its heights, while mass printing and lithograph allowed this demand to flourish. In 1787 William Curtis published the first issue of The Botanical Magazine, a platform for both illustrators and naturalists. This, the oldest journal of its kind, is still published today by The Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, London.
(following images from Curtis' Botanical Magazine, 1807)
In the modern world, the naturalist print feels full of nostalgia, intrigue, and exotica. In a pre-photographic era, the print itself was part curiosity, part travelogue, part historical record. As an artistic object, it cradles the thrill of the newly observed. Like peaking through the slit of an antiquated kinetoscope, the feeling is one of looking back upon a world still discovering itself. Despite its origins as an informational tool, the naturalist print somehow never truly feels like a work of pure realism. Partial to artistic temperaments, romantic saturation of colour, and imaginative situations, to the modern eye they more closely resemble drawings in a children’s fantasy story than any sort of hard scientific evidence. For me, these depictions of flora and fauna will always evoke a sense of bespoke quirkiness that’s often un-retained in photography, now the premier medium for cataloging the natural world.
So here were a lovely few to get us started. I’ll be featuring new examples whenever the fancy strikes me, grouped by categorical or thematic similarities.