Arts News

Inside the fascinating world of botanical illustrations

Discover the incredible world of botanical illustrations in this complete digital reproduction and restoration of Elizabeth Twining’s celebrated catalog of botanical illustrations from 1868
Some of the 160 botanical illustrations Nicholas Rougeux has restored and digitised from Elizabeth Twining’s 19th Century book, Illustrations of the Natural Orders of Plants.

Of all the varied objects of creation there is, probably, no portion that affords so much gratification and delight to mankind as plants.

Elizabeth Twining

A US artist has digitally reproduced an entire 19th Century book dedicated to botany and the illustrations of hundreds of different plants.

Nicholas Rougeux, who has previously created pieces of art out of subway maps and the opening sentences of famous novels, has now brought us a complete reproduction of Elizabeth Twining’s two-volume catalog from 1868, Illustrations of the Natural Orders of Plants. The book was reproduced in its entirety and enhanced with interactive descriptions, diagrams, and posters.

“Elbow grease”

The project took Rougeux four months to complete, as he painstakingly had to scan and restore every single image, then bring them to digital life by making each illustration interactive. Explaining his decision to restore and recreate a book that might not be known too widely outside of botanical circles, Rougeux says:

“If someone told me when I was young that I would spend three months of my time tracing nineteenth century botanical illustrations and enjoy it, I would have scoffed […] but I’ve loved every minute of it.”

“Finding interesting obscure catalogs wasn’t an easy task when I didn’t know what would pique my interest. Anything was fair game but I had an inkling that something based on the sciences would be most interesting. Scientific catalogs are organised, structured, and data can be extracted from them with some elbow grease.”

Botanical illustrations

Rougeux spent “ages” trawling through online resources like the Public Domain Review and the Internet Archive, before uncovering the world of botanical illustrations.

Among the hundreds of fascinating books I looked at, the botanical illustrations piqued my interest the most—many of them including precise details about measurements, geography, affinities, and more. He says:

“Before this project, my level of knowledge about botanical illustration was minimal at best. Even the term “botanical illustration” was relatively new to me. Acknowledging how little I know about a topic is exciting—especially when learning of its existence reveals an entire community, culture, and history. I didn’t know botanical illustration was “a thing” but now that I do, I’m amazed by it and the talent its artists possess.”

Rougeux has digitally restored every one of Twining’s original illustration down to the last level of minute detail. What’s more, he’s made each image fully interactive. Learn more about how he did it here.

Twining’s work, in particular, stood out to Rougeux, who says he was drawn to her “uniqueness in style” and the fact that she wasn’t as well known as other artists.

Each of the 160 illustrations from her book was restored from the original scans to be as colourful as the plants they depict. This involved carefully adjusting the colours and cleaning up spotting and other other markings on the scans to produce clean images without altering the underlying original illustrations.

“I had no idea what I was getting into when I started this project,” Rougeux says. “I figured I would put a few interesting illustrations online and maybe make something small and interesting with data I could extract them them. I never expected to spend four months learning about Elizabeth Twining, botanical illustration, and gaining a whole host of new skills along the way but I’m glad I did and I’d be lying if I didn’t say I’m a little sad that it’s done.”

And the artist hopes potential viewers/readers will discover lots in the project to enjoy and appreciate. Rougeux told Nothing in the Rulebook:

“It would be great if people developed a better understanding of some of the plants Twining illustrated. The classification method she used to group plans is no longer used, but the individual details are still valid and interesting.”

And, having spent so long in the world of botanical science, what is the one fact that has surprised Rougeux the most about plants?

“I think the things that surprised me is just how connected they all are and how many different varieties there are. I knew there were a lot; but to see them listed out really shows the amazing variety that happens naturally.”

You can see the incredible, finished project via Rougeux’s website. And once that’s piqued your botanical interests, you can also start to discover more about the fascinating world of botanical illustrations online through a variety of sources.

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