Sketches from the fairest objects of science
It is March 25. This is what it looks like at Dumbarton Oaks today:
The winter jasmine is covered in snow. Daffodils that had dared to bloom now droop toward the ground. My colleagues are shoveling and salting the walkways, again. Today, the best place to look for flowers is in the Rare Book Collection. One slim volume is particularly heartwarming on a chilly day, inasmuch as it was a handmade gift for a relation. Dated July 1789, bound in marbled paper, cataloged as Watercolors of flowers and butterflies, the manuscript was prepared for a Mrs. Whyte “by her obliged relation R. B. F.”
R. B. F. calls them “sketches from the fairest objects of a Science she [Mrs. Whyte] so much approves.” The paintings show flowers, some native to England but many from South Africa and the Americas. Three of the fourteen flowers are accompanied by insects: a bee moth, a cream-spot tiger moth, and a red admiral butterfly. But they were not all drawn from nature.
In fact, several images in the book seem to derive from plants included in the first volumes of William Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, or, Flower-garden Displayed, the first volume of which appeared in 1787. See, for example, the image of Passiflora alata (winged-stem passion flower) from Curtis beside the image of the same from the R. B. F. manuscript.
Curtis’s magazine which, after several title changes, is still published today, made botany and botanical art available to a wider audience than had previously had access to such work. This manuscript is a fascinating example of the presence of such knowledge in domestic contexts, the re-use of published images, and of the interest in botanical illustration among non-specialist audiences at the end of the eighteenth century. It vibrates with life: brightly-colored flowers accompanied by winged insects, images copied carefully as a gesture of affection.