Fall 2017–Winter 2018

Inventory / Two Gardens in Two Books

Early modern herbaria and the question of botanical representation

Bennett Gilbert

“Inventory” is a column that examines or presents a list, catalogue, or register.


To describe a plant with words hardly brings a reader close to its mysterious reality. Neither the most specific nor the most allusive words can replace a living presence. Even the simplest being has an elusive, intense reality whose fullness provokes problems of representation, not just for writers but also for artists. In many ways, it is our contingent grasp on life itself, and our fear of its loss, that underlie these challenges to representation, whether it takes the form of mimesis, incarnation, abstraction, or trace.


Botanists who aspire to represent the complexity and beauty of plants in books have typically supplemented their words with visual material. This can take the form of handmade images produced using pencil, ink, crayon, or watercolor; drawings reproduced through such media as woodcuts, engravings, and photographs; or by incorporating actual specimens of plants. Though this last option is, of course, the most direct from of representation, it is also by far the least common method of botanical illustration. 


A book to leaf through. Jean-Baptiste Duchesne’s Herbier forestier of 1820. Courtesy Henry E. Huntington Library.

A specimen in the presence of text becomes something other than a plant, though it is a piece of a plant. It turns into a picture. As a picture, it represents the plant’s passage across time, from life to death to image and finally again to a kind of life—at least, life as the specimen-collector chooses to represent it. This trajectory is one that arcs from enchantment to disenchantment and, finally, to re-enchantment—for it seems that something about us can enchant the world, as well as destroy it.


Numerous, sometimes very old, collections of plant materials, known as herbaria, are to be found in the drawers of natural history museums. Yet, in the period of the hand-press book, from around 1450 to around 1820, only two printed books illustrated using dried plant specimens were published.


One of these two efforts has this marvelous title: Herbier forestier, ou Collection des espèces d’arbres et arbrisseaux qui composent les forêts.: Qui mieux encore que ces arbres, les biens qu’ils nous produisent, et leur aspect majestueux, en nous offrant l’un des plus beaux ouvrages de la nature, peut mériter notre vénération, et nous faire connaître la main toute-puissante du Créateur! Dédié et présenté au Roi. Par J.-B. Duchesne fils, jardinier en chef de Sa Majesté. [Forest herbarium, or a collection of the species of trees and shrubs that fill the forests: What could merit our veneration and make known to us the omnipotent hand of the Creator more than trees, the benefits they produce for us, and their majestic aspects, in presenting to us one of the most beautiful works of nature! Dedicated and presented to the King. By J.-B. Duchesne the younger, head gardener to His Majesty.]


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