Skip to navigation Skip to content

August 9, 2019

Beautiful botanical illustrations on display

Despite the wide use of photography as a record keeping medium, botanical illustration is still necessary for the scientific descriptions of plants. It can produce a ‘typical’ example of a plant, drawn from several specimens, and also show all the elements of a plant – including seeds, roots, leaves and flowers – from different angles over time. The best botanical illustration demonstrates both artistic skill and scientific knowledge.

The unique flora of Australia has been superbly illustrated over time. Among the most notable examples are those from Captain Cook’s voyage to New Holland in 1768-71. The botanists Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander were part of this voyage and they collected, dried and pressed thousands of specimens. These formed the basis for drawings, which were used to produce copper plates for printing. Unfortunately, the proposed publication on Australian flora was never completed and the plates had to wait until 1981-88 for a full colour printing by Alecto.

The first monograph to be published on Australian flora was by James Smith and illustrated by James Sowerby in 1793-5. A Specimen of the Botany of New Holland contains many superb hand coloured illustrations, most notably the famous image of the waratah.

Later, in 1827-8, Robert Sweet published Flora Australasica, the first book to contain illustrations of Australian plants and flowers drawn from living specimens, rather than dried and pressed examples. It was extremely difficult to grow Australian specimens such as the dryandra in England as English greenhouses were very humid, and many Australian plants required a dry heat.


The superb quality and variety of botanical illustrations (and other natural history illustrations) produced during the 18th and 19th centuries depicting Australian and Pacific specimens is a result of a fortunate set of circumstances. This was the era of exploration, when new discoveries in the natural world were being made all the time and there was great interest in these new plants and creatures. Fortunately, these discoveries and public interest coincided with the growth in publishing and technical improvements in printing and illustration, which meant that natural history specimens were well served by the books and prints produced about them.

The art of botanical illustration has continued into the modern era. Ellis Rowan (1848-1922) produced many paintings of plants, flowers, trees and insects and unusually for a woman of her time, travelled very widely in order to paint the natural world. Celia Rosser (b.1930) has continued the tradition into the modern era. Her work on banksia is particularly well known, but she has also depicted mosses and saltmarsh plants.

Deakin University Library is fortunate to have copies of all these works in the Special Collection where they are able to be used by students and researchers in botany and the environmental sciences.

Interested in seeing more plant illustrations? A selection of more than 80 watercolour paintings and pencil drawings by the Friends of the Geelong Botanic Gardens art group is currently being exhibited in the Exhibition Gallery at Waterfront Campus from now until 30 August. The artists attend classes held at the Geelong Botanic Gardens, and many have received awards and are represented in botanical collections both nationally and internationally.

Join the conversation

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked * in their own special way.

0 / 500This is a required field.
This is a required field
This is a required field

back to top