Illustrating Roses…Then and Now
Since the beginning of the human race, man has always depicted what was important to him: there are the cave paintings of Altamira, stone carvings in Egypt, Minoan palace frescoes. Botanical illustration has a long history dating from those ancient times to the present. The motivation behind this has varied with the cultures that produced it. The technologies available to each artist in his time also played a big role in the appearance of the finished product. I’m hoping to give you a selective history of the botanical illustration of roses and then go on to show its uses today.
Herbals, which were collections of woodcuts used to catalog plants of medicinal interest, started to appear in early medieval times. Live plants were generally not used as subjects; instead pictures were copied and recopied through the generations by indoor scribes, losing detail and accuracy in the process. The drawings look stiff, species are often wildly inaccurate and some are downright imaginary.
By the second millennium A.D. monks had cloistered gardens and manuscripts started to have borders of more natural flowers and vines. The pictured plants were still more decorative than accurate at this time.
In the early 17th century books called Florilegium started to appear; these were groups of paintings that catalogued the collection of flowers in a specific garden. Elizabeth Blackwell published the Curious Herbal in 1739. Her drawings and engravings, taken from live plants at the Chelsea Physic Garden, were praised by contemporary apothecaries. Women were not typically professional artists at this time, but Blackwell used the income from this florilegium to free her husband from debtor’s prison.
Mary Lawrance holds the distinction of having published the first book entirely devoted to roses. Her 1799 work, ‘A Collection of Roses from Nature’, was stipple engraved then hand colored entirely by the artist. The art historian Wilfred Blunt feels that Lawrance’s fame was “rather undeserved” due to the amateurish quality of the paintings. In contrast, Ellen Wilmott wrote that “her plates are effective and, on the whole, she represents well the character of the plant she depicts. She has a rather marvelous colour sense.” I found her roses graceful but lacking distinction and some detail in the leaves.
The next book of rose illustrations was published in 1828 by H.C. Andrews, titled “Roses”. I love his paintings, even though they are somewhat stylized and certainly not subtle. Like many illustrators, his works were first done in watercolors then engraved, printed and colored by hand. The original prints from his books are rare and expensive, but a copy can be seen on Google book search.
Pierre-Joseph Redouté is the botanical artist whose roses are endlessly republished and seen everywhere from coffee table books to hotel rooms. So much repetition has maybe jaded our appreciation of his work. His illustrations were painted in watercolor on vellum (prepared sheepskin) and then printed and hand colored. He invented a method in 1796 that refined stipple engraving (the use of dots rather than lines) by applying the colors to the plate in a way that gives “to our prints all the softness and brilliance of a watercolor.” Redouté had royal patrons through much of his career, including Marie Antoinette and then the Empress Josephine. He was commissioned to illustrate much of Josephine’s extensive gardens at Malmaison and made use of her roses to paint his masterwork, “Les Roses”, finished in 1824.
Mid nineteenth Century
Henry Curtis, grandson of the famous botanist and publisher of Curtis botanical magazine, published “The Beauty of the Rose” around 1850, showing the best roses of the mid nineteenth century. Curtis grew and carefully studied the roses before depicting them. He is unique in that he drew them directly onto multiple lithography stones, not entrusting their accurate depiction to engravers and printers. Leonie Bell, herself a rosarian and illustrator, found his work to be so valuable that she had a facsimile edition produced.
'General Cavaignac' by Henry Curtis
William Paul’s classic, “The Rose Garden”, was published in at least 10 editions. Only the original 1848 edition contained the lovely color plates that were “entrusted to eminent artists, whose design has been, not to fabricate a pleasing flower, but an exact representation of Nature.”
“Les Roses”, an 1873 French volume on the cultivation of roses, was beautifully illustrated by François Frédéric Grobon. The full color chromolithographs are richly colored and the white rose varieties are clearly pictured by using a colored background paper. He and his brother also published a flower painting manual.
'Aimee Vibert', Grobon in Les Roses
The Genus Rosa
Ellen Wilmott, a contemporary of Gertrude Jekyll, was considered by Ms. Jekyll to be “the greatest of all women gardeners”. She “became obsessed with roses and determined to emulate the empress Josephine” who attempted to grow all known varieties of roses. Alfred Parsons was commissioned by Ellen Wilmott to illustrate her book on rose species and varieties with 154 watercolours. It was an ambitious project but was plagued with problems due to the character flaws of both Wilmott and Parsons. The printing was poorly done, “the subtlety of the original colours has been lost in the chromolithography and the delicacy of the drawing in the crudity of the reproduction.” When it was finally published in 1914 after years of delays, 740 of the original 1000 volumes remained unsold. I’ve seen one of the published volumes and compared it to Graham Stuart Thomas’s modern reprint from Parsons original watercolors; the colors in the Wilmott prints are inferior.
The Sulphur Rose, Parsons in the Genus Rosa
Journal Des Roses
The ‘Journal des Roses’ was published monthly from 1877 to 1914. It featured monthly full color chromolithographs of contemporary roses, illustrated by a number of different artists. These wonderful magazines are very difficult to obtain, but the complete collection is now being reproduced by Bob Edberg of Limberlost Roses in encyclopedia format. In the foreword Milton Nurse, editor of the Historic Journal, says there “is a particular aptness in seeing 19th century roses illustrated in a 19th century manner.”
Other Rose Illustrators of Note
There were a number of talented illustrators of roses in the twentieth century. Paul de Longpré was an early example. He started out with classic botanical illustrations of flowers and progressed to lush paintings of roses. De Longpré grew over 700 varieties of roses at his Los Angeles home. He frequently painted his favorites, ‘La France’ and ‘American Beauty’, accompanied often by bumblebees.
One of my favorites is Graham Stuart Thomas, the multi-talented horticulturist, writer, illustrator and musician. His sensitive pencil sketch of ‘Nevada’ jump started my interest is the botanical illustration of roses. Lotte Gunthart’s paintings, particularly in the ‘Beauty of the Rose’, range from formal botanical illustrations of roses to impressionist style color studies. Her paintings were accompanied by botanical, historic or cultural information. Anne Ophelia Dowden, who died last year at the age of 100, was considered by some to be the ‘grandmother of contemporary botanical illustrators in the U.S.’ Her painting of ‘American Beauty’, the wildly popular hybrid perpetual of the Gilded Age, captures the subtle coloring that cultivar is known for. Then there were the illustrators of rose and seed catalogs, fascinating but best left to another time.
Modern Botanical Illustration
You may be asking why botanical art is still useful. After all, can’t we best record rose and other plant varieties with modern photography? Art historian Lys de Bray says:
“The camera sees all and all is too much. The eye sees what it needs and can concentrate the brain and the hand on this essential part of the plant. The eye can see that a leaf, a stem, a petal, a bract is not characteristic
and brain and hand can correct the drawn image. In addition, the finished drawing must be characteristic of the species and not an individual specimen. There is no substitute for the skill and knowledge and the God-given talent of the botanical artist.”
In the early twentieth century, in order to patent a new plant variety, an identifying picture would be submitted. Dr. Walter Brownell, Rhode Island breeder of many cold hardy roses, did his own paintings for the patents. You can see in this patent painting for climbing Break O’Day most of the typical botanical illustration features; the bud, bloom, leaves, and prickles are all clearly shown. Dr. Brownell’s grand daughter, Dorrie Nichols, still uses her collection of these patent pictures to help determine if a cultivar said to be one of her grandfather’s is indeed correctly identified. When asked by a local woman to identify the red Brownell rose on her property, Dorrie compared it to the patent paintings, narrowed it to 3 varieties, then took the bloom apart and compared it to the description as well and decided it was ‘Handsom Red’. That evening, the woman’s husband called to say that he would remember the rose name if he heard it, and he picked out ‘Handsom Red’ immediately.
The paintings and drawings made by botanical illustrators can be useful today in identifying old rare varieties of roses. There are a number of rosarians with a passion for finding, saving and sharing Old Garden Roses. The Heritage Rose Foundation and the Texas Rose Rustlers are two that come to mind. Often old roses are found in cemeteries or at abandoned homesteads. The common ones can be readily identified by an astute rosarian, but some require a more scientific approach. ‘The Field Report of Rose Characteristics’ by Dean, Storm and Vierra was developed with this in mind. It shows illustrations of all the parts of a rose bush with the corresponding botanical descriptions so that found roses may be consistently described and hopefully identified. For example, they illustrate 8 types of leaf margins and 8 types of prickles. Stipule characteristics, leaflet and petal shapes, growth habit, all are recorded when a found rose it recorded in the field report. The field report instructs people to preserve pressed specimens when possible and to photograph the plant as well. Its use of botanical terms makes it ideal for connecting old botanical illustrations and their detailed descriptions to unnamed roses.
Botanical illustration is undergoing a resurgence among contemporary artists. There are a number of major societies including the American Society of Botanical Artists and The Society of Botanical Artists in England. The Brooklyn Botanical Garden Florilegium Society is quite active, having dozens of accomplished botanical artists, whose work can be seen at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden website and in exhibitions. Their long term project is to create a record of the plants grown by the garden.
The Denver Botanic Gardens also has a very active botanical illustration program with over 400 students. For the American Rose Society National Convention in June 2008, they hosted an exhibit to showcase their program. In honor of the convention, the illustration program participated in the painting of the heritage roses in the local Fairmount Cemetery. Several botanical illustration posters were designed for the events surrounding the National Convention; one of them features ‘Rosa gallica versicolor’ painted by Peggy Turchette. Peggy is a free lance illustrator who received her certificate in botanical illustration from the Denver Botanic Gardens in early 2008. She describes here the focus and concentration needed to produce a quality illustration.
“Racing against time, I drew a very detailed graphite drawing of
everything I'd gathered: blossoms, buds, and leaves. This took about six
hours. I then took out my watercolors and did several color studies
directly from the specimens. By the following day, all my flowers had
drooped, so when I started my painting, I had to rely heavily on my
detailed drawing and my color studies, with additional trips out to the
Gardens to look at the plant again. The painting took about forty hours
to complete in watercolor.
Peggy was happy to participate in the ‘cataloging’ of the Fairmount Cemetery in June. “I feel a particular kinship with these old roses--they refuse to be labeled, they grow with no human ‘supervision’, in unlikely settings amidst uncertainty, and exist with little or no recognition for their efforts”.
England has a long history of botanical illustration and can boast of being home to many of its giants: Lindley, Wilmott and Parsons, Lawrance, Curtis, and Andrews. The tradition continues and evolves with The Society of Botanical Artists. Marion Perkins is the Director of this society, which was formed about 20 years ago. Her beautiful rendition of Rosa ‘Crazy for You’ shows the flower in bud, opening and full bloom and was awarded a Certificate of Botanical Merit in 2007. This painting exemplifies another problem in rose history that illustration can help with, that is, roses often have different names in different countries and certainly in different eras. ‘Crazy for You’ is instantly recognizable in Marion’s painting as ‘Fourth of July’. Marion designs gardens and lives in a restored 19th century cottage. After being tutored in drawing and painting techniques, she learned Lithography at St Albans School of Art. Marion then began her career in botanical art about ten years ago. She is one of the few who specializes in painting roses.
“From painting landscapes to flowers was an easy step for me, especially
having been a fanatical gardener and rose-grower! I studied at the
well-known Chelsea Physic Garden in London. I specialize now in painting
roses. It is always the rose that stops me in my tracks and the delight of
capturing every detail on paper enthralls me. It is an exacting process
but fortunately the rose does not change shape too quickly and an
overnight rest in the refrigerator (for the rose) works wonders!
I asked Marion why she felt botanical illustration was still relevant today, when cameras are so common place and easy to use. Her passionate response is typical of those who practice this art. “I find a botanical painting holds my interest for much longer that a photograph, however brilliant it is. The artist captures the spirit of the flower with absolute accuracy whereas the camera can deceive the eye. Velvet textures, depth of colour, glossy leaves all can be created in watercolour in a remarkable way to produce absolute realism. Botanical Illustration will never die!”
I agree with the artists that I interviewed that a skilled artist can record all the details of a rose variety with greater clarity than the average photographer. In the creative process, the artist slows down, takes time “to smell the roses’, and can learn much about how the rose grows, with its unique patterns of leaf and thorn and bloom. Contrast that approach to the way that most of us approach digital photography. Automatic digital cameras equipped with enormous memory cards allow us to quickly and thoughtlessly take thousands of photos, often with little regard to composition, lighting or any attempt to accurately and beautifully portray a typical specimen of the variety.
Since the majority of us do not have the talent or the time to be trained as a botanical illustrator, I’d like to suggest a digital alternative where parts of different photos are combined to give a more complete picture. Try taking photos of your favorite roses at different times of year, getting close-ups of the buds and sepals in spring, the blooms and thorns in summer and the seed hips in the fall. To make processing easier, try photographing as much as you can with a white background behind the rose, one of those stiff pieces of foam board that kids use for science projects works well.
Next, choose a computer program that allows you to edit digital photos. One of the most flexible and feature filled programs is Photoshop Elements. This is the less expensive little brother of the professional artist’s Adobe Photoshop. Now, decide how much time and effort you want to spend. The various views of your rose can be combined very quickly and simply, just by cropping and resizing them as rectangular pieces to fit together on your page. This will be adequate for identification and study purposes.
If you are looking to make a more artistic rendition, you will need to take time to learn to use the software so that you can combine your pictures in a more natural manner. It will allow you to ‘mask’ and remove the background from each picture, sort of like cutting it out with scissors. Then the various views can be overlapped and fit together into an artistic whole. Photographs from different seasons as well as drawings may be combined this way.
So, take some time to look back at the development of roses through the eyes of the artists that love them. Check out Coggiatti’s “The Language of Roses” illustrated by the talented Anne Marie Trechslin. Her paintings accompany each of the important roses he describes. For a comprehensive history try “The Rose” by Peter Harkness. This massive book is also illustrated entirely with artwork, with no photographs at all. Surprisingly, I’ve found that that’s the way I like it.