Flowers, Fruit and Foliage

Design Assembly article

Blog post for Design Assembly website.

“Entering the exhibition space, the lights dim, is like walking into a place of worship. In this case, it is a temple to botanical art and more generally a homage to the printed book.

Flowers, Fruit and Foliage – a bouquet of botanical illustrations

An exhibition from the Sir George Grey Special Collections at Central City Library, Auckland.

Exhibition runs until 17th March 2013

Entering the exhibition space, the lights dim, is like walking into a place of worship. In this case, it is a temple to botanical art and more generally a homage to the printed book.

As I walk around the exhibition, I am overwhelmed by the progress in technology since the development of the printing press (15th century), the Linotype machine (1880s), desktop publishing (1980s) and the internet (1990s). I easily forget the massive impact of these developments on the general public’s exposure to books and information, and when I see some of these publications, printed in runs of tens only, I am grateful how easy it is for me to identify plants in my garden with only 5 minutes access to Google.

The earliest book in this exhibition is ‘A Nievve Herball, or, History of Plantes’, published in 1578, more than 60 years before Tasman sailed past New Zealand, and nearly 200 years before Cook stopped off. Its blackletter typeface dates it immediately, but the exquisite and delicate drawing of two varieties of gillyflower (pinks) is instantly recognisable as the same flower which so often appears in ’emergency’ gas station flowers. Design dates but flowers do not.

Hand-painted illustrations appear frequently in this exhibition, the black and white wood engravings and lithographs having been hand-coloured to better identify the flora. ‘The Art Album of New Zealand Flora’, from 1889, is open at a frontispiece lithograph showing an arrangement of wildflowers and berries so rich in colour, it looks almost in relief – like a scratch-and-sniff image. The idea of a small army of colourists is now almost inconceivable – as a designer, I am much more used to mixing colours on a virtual palette than dealing with the intricacies of combining pigments.

My favourite illustration is a print of a single, vividly red-and-yellow tulip, laid out, life-sized, on a fold-out plate, as if it had just tripped and fallen into the pages of the book. It is simple, bright and modern, despite having been created in 1824 in the ‘Album de Redouté.

The ‘curious-corner’ of the exhibition is dedicated to ferns which have literally been flattened onto pages, with Miss Mills’ album (from 1749) containing uniformly brown fern fronds and leaves. They look as brittle and faded as you’d expect any 264-year-old plant to be. ‘145 Varieties of New Zealand Plants’ consists of pages of cyanotype-blue silhouettes of specimens, their ghostly shadows like death shrouds. Also in this cabinet is Thomas Moore’s ‘Nature Printed British Ferns’, in which fronds were pressed into lead sheets, these impressions transformed into printing plates, and the final prints hand-coloured. The result is slightly embossed and very tactile, if only I could reach under the glass and feel it.

New Zealander Audrey Eagle more recently contributed to this genre. This exhibition shows her image of a kowhai from the 1982 work ‘Eagle’s Trees and Shrubs of New Zealand’ and just beyond the glass doors of the gallery, you can find all of her work from this and her 1975 book, bound into two door-stop volumes ‘Eagle’s Complete Trees and Shrubs of New Zealand’. If you aren’t familiar with botanical art, I would suggest requesting these award-winning books from your local library. The attention to detail and clarity of description in these illustrations is an excellent example of the aim of all designers – clarity of information and getting your message across.

Spend some time alone with these books and these images and you may be in danger of forming an unhealthy relationship with historical print and libraries.

Images from Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries