I-50. Six Hundred Years of Botanical Illustration

Peter Crane Roger Gaskell

Course Length: 26 hours
Course Week: 15–19 July 2024
Format: in person, Oak Spring Garden Foundation in Upperville, VA
Tuition: $1,185
Housing & food: $850*

This course surveys botanical illustration from the late medieval period to modern times, exploiting the outstanding collection of illustrated books and related drawings held in the Oak Spring Garden Library. Taking a broadly chronological approach, the development of botanical illustration is traced from medieval manuscript and early printed herbals, through florilegia and scientific plant illustration in the seventeenth century, to the floras and monographs of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with firsthand examination of some of the most spectacular color-plate books produced in any field.

Central to this course is an emphasis on the printing history of botanical books and the ways in which print-making processes affect the style and content of printed images. The Library’s rich collection of field sketches, finished drawings, and printing proofs reveal the multiple processes that shaped botanical image making. Students will learn to identify key picture-printing technologies—woodcut, intaglio, wood-engraving, lithography, and photomechanical processes—and the ways in which each technology, and the different artists and makers involved, impacted the aesthetic and scientific content of the images. The distinguished botanical illustrator Alice Tangerini will lead a drawing session to provide students with practical experience.

Illustrations in botanical books were critical to multiple and overlapping fields of knowledge in a globalized world. They facilitated the adoption of new pharmaceuticals within traditional materia medica; they introduced ornamental exotics to gardeners and florists, and they promoted economically useful plants that fuelled imperialist goals. At the same time, botanical illustrations were fundamental to the development of the botanical sciences of classification, anatomy, morphology, physiology, and ecology. Yet illustrated botanical books were products of the artistic and visual culture of their times, and constrained by the economics of printing, publishing, and marketing. Students will discover firsthand how these interdependent themes coexist in the materiality of the printed book.

The contributions of women are of particular importance in the creation of botanical illustration as well as its consumption. Paying attention to the participation of women redresses the imbalances in the historical narrative and requires us to analyze the books studied not in terms of singular authors and illustrators but as the products of multiple agents, both acknowledged and hidden. Women’s roles in metropolitan and colonial settings as well as the contributions of Indigenous artists to European books are explored. Students will also view examples of East Asian botanical art and book production, contrasting with the European books that are the focus of the collection and the course.

The spaces and collections at Oak Spring Garden Library lend themselves to a fully integrated teaching experience combining slide presentations, demonstrations, and student exercises together with close examination of drawings, printing plates and blocks, and printed books. The library contains original drawings by many of the leading botanical artists from the sixteenth century to the present day and some of the finest copies of the great herbals, florilegia, and botanical atlases.

This course features a drawing demonstration led by Alice Tangerini.

*This is a fully residential course, a unique opportunity to stay on the Oak Spring Garden site, explore the gardens and grounds, work in the beautifully furnished private library built for Rachel “Bunny” Mellon, and learn from fellow students and the internationally acclaimed instructors. There are two fees associated with this course: tuition ($1,185), and housing and food ($850). Owing to the lack of other nearby accommodations and the nature of the arrangements with this private institution, both fees are required to participate in this course. The latter covers the cost of staying in on-site accommodations of well-appointed single rooms with en suite baths, and of dining at Oak Spring. Three meals and refreshment breaks each day are included in the cost. Scholarship and fellowship tuition waivers cover the cost of tuition; these tuition waivers do not extend to include the $850 fee for housing and food.

The course will be of interest to academics (at the Ph.D. candidate level and above), independent scholars, botanical artists, curators, and collectors. There are no specific entry requirements, but in their personal statements, applicants should describe their background knowledge in areas covered by the course. Students are required to upload a copy of their most recent CV along with their personal statement.

Course History

Sir Peter Crane and Roger Gaskell co-teach this course. They are joined by guest lecturers.
Sir Peter Crane, Roger Gaskell, and Amy Meyers co-teach this course. They are joined by guest lecturers Lara Call Gastinger and Megan McNamee. 

Course Resources

  • Advance Reading List
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  • Peter Crane
  • Roger Gaskell

Peter Crane

Sir Peter Crane, FRS is President of the Oak Spring Garden Foundation in Virginia (osgf.org), an estate of Rachel Lambert Mellon that includes an exquisite garden, as well as an exceptional library focused on the history of plant science, plant exploration, and the development of gardens and landscape design. He is known internationally for his work on the diversity of plant life—its origin, fossil history, current status, conservation, and use.

Peter Crane was elected to the Royal Society (the U.K. academy of sciences) in 1998 and was knighted in the U.K. for services to horticulture and conservation in 2004. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Foreign Associate of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, a Foreign Member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, and a Member of the German Academy Leopoldina.  He is the recipient of several honorary degrees from universities in the U.S. and U.K., including an honorary doctorate of science from each of the following institutions: the University of Connecticut and Sewanee: The University of the South, both in the U.S., and Cambridge University in the U.K. He received the International Prize for Biology in December 2014.

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Roger Gaskell

Roger Gaskell is a retired antiquarian bookseller specializing in scientific medical and technical books, and has worked closely with academic libraries in the U.K. and the U.S. He has taught seminars in book history and scientific illustration at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge and at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. Since 2013, he has taught a course on illustrated scientific books at Rare Book School. He has served as a council member of the Bibliographical Society (U.K.).

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