King's College London
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From woodcut to photograph: techniques of book illustration

Botanical illustration

Engraving of the common borage plant with blue flowers, coloured by hand in watercolourEngraving of the common borage plant, coloured by hand in watercolourFor the botanist accurate illustrations are an important component of a good reference work, supplementing the text as a means of species identification. Even in our own age of digital photography the botanical artist with pencil or watercolour brush still has a role to play, emphasising features and details that a photographer cannot pick up and blending science with beauty.

Faithful replication of a plant’s colour is a part of the botanical artist’s skill and in the pre-lithographic age botanical works were often coloured by hand in watercolour.

The Cumberland physician William Woodville (1752-1805) published his Medical botany, of which the Supplement is shown here, between 1790 and 1794. Containing nearly 300 engraved plates, it remained the standard illustrated work on the British botanical pharmacopoeia until the late 19th century.

The illustrations are the work of the artist James Sowerby (1757-1822) and were undoubtedly a major factor in the work’s success. The plate on display depicts the common borage, which Woodville suggests may be beneficial in the treatment of nervous illness, and the colourist has sought to capture the brilliant blue of its flowers.

A member of the Linnean Society and of the Guy’s Hospital Physical Society, Woodville held the post of physician of the London Smallpox and Inoculation Hospital at St Pancras, where he kept a garden of medicinal plants.

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