UNSPECIFIED - MAY 25: Portrait of Sir Joseph Banks (London, 1743-1820), 1771-1773, English naturalist and botanist, long-time president of the Royal Society, painted by Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), oil on canvas, 127x101.5 cm. London, National Portrait Gallery (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)
Portrait of Sir Joseph Banks by Joshua Reynolds © DeAgostini/Getty Images

When the botanist Sir Joseph Banks returned from his voyage with Captain Cook aboard the HMS Endeavour in 1771, he brought with him around 1,300 species unknown to Europeans and a number of sketches, colour studies and watercolours of plants by the illustrator Sydney Parkinson. Over the next decade, Banks commissioned more than 700 copperplate engravings of these plants, but a complete set of botanical illustrations — known as a florilegium — from his voyage was not published in full and in colour for a further 200 years with a limited-edition boxed set in 1990.

This month will see the publication of the first volume of another major compilation: The Transylvania Florilegium. Seven years in the making, the set of two volumes — published in a limited edition of 150 with hand-marbled covers, goatskin and gold-leaf bindings and a signed foreword by Prince Charles — will set you back £12,950.

For Banks, a detailed set of colour illustrations made sense: there was no other way of recording these fragile specimens from a voyage that lasted almost three years. Yet in the age of high-resolution photography, what is the point of plant illustrations?

“They are essentially botanical documents,” says Mary-Ellen Taylor, who teaches at the Chelsea School of Botanical Art and who was one of artists who visited Romania in 2016 for the Transylvania project. “What the artist is able to show on one sheet of paper with one species is its entire life cycle.”

She points to her sketches of an aster for the florilegium. “Here we have last year’s growth so it’s a perennial and comes back each year; here’s the new bud coming up with light-coloured leaves and freshness; then we have it growing taller and then this was the actual flower at its peak. Then the dying bit and how it disperses its seeds afterwards and the discolouration of leaves. As a botanical document this is really the only way you can show that. You can’t show that in a photograph — you’re only getting a nanosecond of its life in a particular place. So this is where a florilegium comes into play.”

Nigel Frith of Addison Publications, showing H.R.H. Prince of Wales the Transylvania Florilegium at the Romanian Cultural Institute, London, in May. (C) Addison Publications/Transylvania Florilegium.
Nigel Frith of Addison Publications, showing Prince Charles 'The Transylvania Florilegium' © Addison Publications/Transylvania Florilegium

This new work is in some ways a companion piece to The Highgrove Florilegium , published in 2008, which recorded plants in Prince Charles’s Gloucestershire gardens; now, 36 of the world’s best botanical artists, armed with a list of wildflowers and led by the botanist Dr John Akeroyd, have descended on the prince’s Romanian Foundation in Viscri and his house in Zalanpatak to document the plants of the surrounding area. “It was such a beautiful, simple place,” says Taylor. “It was like stepping back into Grimms’ fairy tales, but not twee. Both of the Prince of Wales’s properties were humble and cosy with local furniture, garlic above the door and handicrafts.”

The area remains almost pre-industrial; farming is a horse-and-cart affair and the hillsides are covered with what Prince Charles describes in his foreword as “probably the most unique wild flower meadows left in Europe”.

Akeroyd, who has worked on Transylvanian flora for more than 15 years, knew where everything was. “The first thing we found was wormwood, which is what absinthe is made of,” says Taylor. “It’s a spindly little thing. We took it back in a bag, put it in water and prayed it stayed together. Then we’d do our drawings and colour studies as quickly as possible because wildflowers begin to fade almost immediately. We worked from dawn ’til dusk every day and when we needed the next species we’d go back out.”

Hepatica Transsylvanica, by Kate Nessler © Addison Publications/Transylvania Florilegium

Occasionally, they preserved flower heads in local moonshine, but if a plant was uprooted it was carefully returned after being drawn. Some parts of the plant were more important to document than others — for the wormwood, Akeroyd wanted Taylor to record the roots as well as the leaves and flowers, underlining the scientific purpose of the project.

Florilegia first emerged in the 15th century to record the medicinal properties of plants in books called herbals. It was essential that illustrations were precise to allow for accurate identification. In the 16th and 17th centuries these books evolved into records of the plants in botanical gardens, commissioned by large institutions and rich patrons.

Polygala major, by Junko Iwata © Addison Publications/Transylvania Florilegium

“Kew has [illustrations] going back to the 16th century and there are older ones elsewhere,” says Christopher Mills, the former librarian at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in London. “Some of them are incredibly fresh and look as they probably did the day they were painted.”

Not only do florilegia provide snapshots of the flora of a specific place at a specific time, but they also form a very important record, says Mills. “Most botanical artists would have recorded when exactly they did it and paintings have developed a new use in terms of the record of when a particular species could be found in a particular place. Before the days when a systematic survey would have been done before mining started so that the land could be restored afterwards, by going back to the old records and paintings and sometimes even amateur sketchbooks you get a reasonably good idea of what used to grow there.”

Taylor, who has documented the flora and fauna of the Galápagos islands, senses an affinity between her work on The Transylvania Florilegium and that of artists centuries ago. “Integrity is what I feel is the connection,” she says. “One of my heroes was Maria Sibylla Merian, who was an Austrian German woman back in the 1700s. She got on a boat and travelled for three months to French Guiana and spent years recording the plants and the metamorphosis she saw in the life cycle of insects. She went against the norms of her day and there’s an integrity in that. And there’s great integrity in this [Transylvania Florilegium] project. It is not flower painting. We are recording for posterity everything that is on the cusp of disappearing.”

Helleborus pururascens, by Gillian Barlow © Addison Publications/Transylvania Florilegium

Volume I of ‘The Transylvania Florilegium’ is published by Addison Publications. Volume II is due in May 2019

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