Display showcases scientific research into botanical masterpieces

Athens. Ferdinand Bauer, early 19th century, pencil, ink and wash. On 6 March 1786, the botanical artist Ferdinand Bauer (1760-1826) and John Sibthorp (1758-96), Sheradian Professor of Botany at Oxford, began a scientific journey through Turkey and Greece to record the diversity of plants in the eastern Mediterranean. Athens, capital of the Hellenic world, became Bauer and Sibthorp’s base as they explored southern and north-eastern Greece in the latter half of 1787. Credit: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

Some of the finest botanical and zoological paintings in the world are going on display.

Painting by numbers, a new display which runs until July 9, brings together beautiful watercolours and field sketches by the celebrated central European botanical artist, Ferdinand Bauer (1760-1826), including incredible paintings of marine animals which have never been displayed before.

The display focuses on Bauer’s ground-breaking two-year expedition to the eastern Mediterranean with John Sibthorp (1758-96), Sherardian Professor of Botany at Oxford, and the current research by the Bodleian Libraries Heritage Science team to unravel Bauer’s painting by numbers system.

The numerical notes on Bauer’s botanical sketches indicate that he assigned different colours different numbers, and marked these numbers on his sketches, so when he later turned these into more detailed watercolours, he would know which colour to use where.

This enabled him to replicate his sketches of flora and fauna to an amazing degree of accuracy, but researchers are still trying to understand exactly how this worked in practise, and if he used a colour chart that has since been lost, or if he simply had an astonishing colour memory.

The display showcases sketches and watercolours based on Bauer and Sibthorp’s journey around Greece and Turkey in 1786-88, where they studied the diversity of plants and wildlife and collected thousands of specimens of flora.

Bauer made hundreds of pencil sketches of plants and animals during this trip and then came to Oxford where he spent six years (1788-1794) producing watercolours from these sketches.

The results of this expedition were made famous by Sibthorp’s ten-volume book Flora Graeca (1806-40), one of the rarest and most expensive botanical books in the world. This book took 54 years to produce and only 25 copies were first printed, but it has come to be an important account of the plants of the eastern Mediterranean.

In addition, visitors can see some spectacular paintings of fish, ink drawings of Athens and Constantinople, as well as examples of colour pigments and a reconstruction of a colour chart Bauer possibly used. The display also includes a detailed watercolour of the snake’s head fritillary, Oxfordshire’s official flower, by contemporary botanical illustrator Rosemary Wise, using eighteenth-century materials and techniques.

Researchers at the Bodleian are currently undertaking a three year research project, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, to identify Bauer’s pigments and compare the results with his original number code in order to better understand his work processes and unravel the colour code in the Flora Graeca. The display is co-curated by Dr Stephen Harris, Druce Curator of Oxford University Herbaria, and Dr Richard Mulholland, Leverhulme Trust Research Fellow at the Bodleian who is working on the project to decode Bauer’s colour system.

Harris said: “Bauer’s paintings are among the world’s finest natural history illustrations.

“They are astonishingly accurate, especially when you consider that in some cases he only saw the living plant or animal once and then painted it up to six years later. It’s great to be able to show the materials, methods and processes Bauer used to produce these remarkable paintings and show them in the city where they were created.

“It’s estimated that Bauer probably made one painting every 1½ days during his time in Oxford, so he was incredibly efficient as well as skilled.

“Today we are used to snapping images on our phones, but this display really celebrates the skills of botanical illustrators, whose works had, and continue to have, powerful influences on the world’s botanists.’

The display runs at the Weston Library until July 9. A small, accompanying digital display will show the reconstruction of Bauer’s materials and techniques by Dr Richard Mulholland and Rosemary Wise, and the scientific analysis of Bayer’s materials at the Bodleian.  Open daily. Admission is free.

Sharing is caring!