Art, nature, the history of science, and whoa, aren't these beautiful?


Plate 73 of the John Reeves Collection of Zoological Drawings from Canton, China, 1774-1856. (© The Natural History Museum, London).

Reeves was an English tea inspector, but also amassed a wonderful collection of Chinese drawings of plants and animals during his time in Canton.

A few weeks back, I had a great conversation with Judith Magee, Library Special Collections Curator at the Natural History Museum. From this conversation, as well as others (thanks Peronel, Martha, Bergit), it soon became clear that there were many individuals within the museum that had a passion for things pertaining to the humanities and the arts (see also this previous post).

In particular, the museum happens to house a vast collection of illustrations and paintings, many of which were originally produced as a way to scientifically document new species, new cultures, and other things observed during expeditions. However, it's also clear that apart from their historical value, these pieces of artwork also have immense aesthetic value. They. Are. Beautiful.

And speaking to Judith, you can literally feel the enthusiasm and affection for such pieces. Judith talked to me about writer/artists such as Alexander von Humboldt, John Bartram, as well as the wonderful drawings collected by John Reeves.

Best of all, it looks like the museum is now in the process of developing exhibitions around their art collection, and if you're the academic type whose interest is piqued by the mention of the humanities, the museum has a fairly new Centre for Arts and Humanities Research (you can see one of their projects here). This Centre has a mandate that:

supports interdisciplinary research into the historical, cultural, social and economic significance of the library, archive and specimen collections of this world-class museum. It does this by enabling and promoting research into the collection through partnerships with universities, research councils, foundations, major museums and libraries around the world.

Anyway, sit back and enjoy these other few images:


"Humboldt and his party collecting plant." Specimens at the foot of Mount Chimborazo. Detail from Plate 25 Voyage aux Regions Equinoxiales by Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859). (© The Natural History Museum, London).

Humboldt was well known as a wonderful writer. In fact, his works were known to have inspired Darwin as he traveled on the Beagle. As well, Humboldt's views on the "unity of nature" are often thought to have laid the groundwork for ecological study. In his art, he often included himself in the picture (the first Waldo?), again to emphasize the holistic connections in nature.


"Nelumbo lutea, American lotus and Triodopsis albolabri, snail." Drawing 34 (Ewan 59) from the Botanical and zoological drawings (1756-1788) by William Bartram. Pen, ink and watercolour. (© The Natural History Museum, London).

Bartram is often referred to as the "Father of American Botany," and played an important part in distributing American seeds to European gardeners. His artwork is also acclaimed as being one of the first to move away from the Linnaean practice of plant in isolation depicted in a position that best highlighted its anatomy. You can see here how Bartram has really attempted to present the various species as a community of players.


"Bubo bubo bengalensis, Eurasian eagle-owl." Large Series plate 5, a watercolour from the John Reeves Collection of Zoological Drawings from Canton, China. (© The Natural History Museum, London).

Reeves' collection presented a fascinating look at the wide variety of Chinese natural history. In fact, many of the species depicted by the images were, at the time, unknown to Western science.