Art remains vital to naturalists wishing to understand and identify the wildlife surrounding us. Alex Morss discusses why botanical illustration is indispensable when it comes to identifying Britain's wildflowers, even in the age of digital photography.
Relatively few illustrators achieve the high standards that naturalists crave when trying to identify a plant. Many of us sketch in our own field journals but we all depend upon greater artists to help us learn.
To portray wildlife for illustrative keys requires an elusive crossover of art and science: painstakingly accurate artistic skill in drawing, shading and rendering, partnered with a rigorous understanding of which distinguishing features of a species should be magnified.
When shining a spotlight on finer details, illustration frequently trumps photography.
“While camera can capture these features, there’s often too much background noise to the images,” says Trevor Dines, botany specialist at conservation charity, Plantlife. “Only with the skill of an artist can they be isolated, highlighted and contrasted to bring out the essential character of each species.”
Dines credits the botanical illustrators of The Wild Flowers of Britain and Northern Europe for inspiring his early forays into plant identification.
“The paintings capture the essence of each species perfectly, but manage to be exuberant and celebratory at the same time. I still love the paintings of mints – you can almost smell them on the page. The incredibly subtle differences between each species are there, laid bare to see but almost imperceptible – it’s botanical art of the highest skill.”
In a digital age, words and photos can fail us, while botanical art reliably soothes a naturalist’s woes. It is easy to overlook the quiet value of this centuries-old resource.
Alex’s recommended illustrated botanical books:
Drawings of British Plants, Stella Ross-Craig, Bell & Sons, 1956 (now out of print)
Den Nya Nordiska Floran, Lennart Stenberg and Bo Mossberg, Wahlström & Widstrand, 2003
Collins Wild Flower Guide, David Streeter, Christina Hart-Davies, Audrey Hardcastle, Felicity Cole, Lizzie Harper, William Collins, 2016 (2nd edition)
The Wild Flower Key, Francis Rose and Clare O’Reilly, Warne 2006
Wild Flowers of Britain and Ireland, Marjorie Blamey, Richard Fitter and Alastair Fitter, Bloomsbury, 2013
The Concise British Flora in Colour, Keble-Martin, Ebury 1974 (now out of print but widely available)
Colour Identification Guide to the Grasses, Sedges, Rushesand Ferns of the British Isles and North West Europe – Francis Rose, Lura Mason, Claire Dalby and R. Davis, Viking, 1989
BSBI handbooks for field identification, various species and authors, Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland
Common Families of Flowering Plants, Michael Hickey and Clive King, Cambridge University Press, 1997
Understanding the Flowering Plants: A Practical Guide for Botanical Illustrators, Anne Bebbington, The Crowood Press Ltd 2014
The Kew Book of Botanical Illustration, Christabel King, Search Press, 2015
The Golden Age of Botanical Art, Martyn Rix, Andre Deutsch, 2018