The Lost Artists Of British Enlightenment Natural History

Presented by Isabelle Charmantier, The Linnean Society of London.

Abstract

Taking the art collection of the Linnean Society of London as a case study, this paper looks at the many drawings, paintings and illustrations of the natural world collected and commissioned by the Society’s Fellows in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. These Fellows came from varied backgrounds, including surgeons, medical doctors, reverends and army soldiers. They were part of the British colonial enterprise, exploring and settling in Burma, Nepal, India and the West Indies. Their observations about the botany and zoology they studied were sent back to the Society to be read to other Fellows at meetings and published in the Society’s journals. Yet the artwork accompanying these observations was not generally drawn by the authors themselves but by local or indigenous artists they employed. The identities of these artists remain unknown in most cases, but the images they drew were of paramount importance in the construction of natural historical knowledge in Enlightenment Britain. The images they drew to accompany textual descriptions of new plants and animals were often the first to be seen in Europe. These artists were steeped in their own visual and technical traditions, yet they were expected to conform to Western standards of depicting plants and animals, that mirrored taxonomic and nomenclatural objectives. The resulting works reflect the meeting of different cultural, sociological and ecological concerns. The talk will present three specific examples from the Society’s collections and explore what can be done to decolonise the collections, to resurrect these artists, and give back the recognition they deserve.

About the author

Dr Isabelle Charmantier is Head of Collections at the Linnean Society of London. After a PhD on the history of early modern ornithology, and a postdoc at the University of Exeter working on Carl Linnaeus’ manuscripts, she retrained as an archivist and catalogued the Linnaean manuscripts at the Linnean Society. After a short spell as Collections Manager at the Freshwater Biological Association (Windermere), she has been back at the Linnean Society since 2017. isabelle@linnean.org.uk / @isacharmant

Presented in the third session of the ‘Decolonising Natural Science Collections’ NatSCA online conference, 19 November 2020.

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