With the recent launch of the Royal Society Print Shop, and our upcoming Drawing Science event, I thought it was a good time to reflect on the history of visual art in science.

Pre-Renaissance, a great deal of the art produced in Europe was based on religion and the same could be said about science, or natural philosophy as it was then known. The burgeoning of natural science brought the need for methods of observational documentation, which required a new form of artist – the scientific illustrator. In this modern age, most natural scientists simply snap a photo of what they are studying, but during the scientific revolution professional artists performed the work of a DSLR camera, painstakingly creating beautiful and detailed illustrations documenting bugs, birds and flowers alike. Whilst the development of the printing press was certainly influential in advancing the art of scientific illustration, we should tip our hats to Filippo Brunelleschi, who is credited with discovering linear perspective. With this revolutionary principle in mind, artists were able to deliver accurate three-dimensional depictions of what they saw.

The earliest illustrations were added to books by hand. Later, printed material used wood cutting (the practice of carving into wood, and then using that as a template, similar to a rubber stamp) to add images to the text. This was more time and cost-effective than hand-drawing but was limited in line thickness, meaning woodcut illustrations were not very detailed. In the 17th century, this practice was updated to metal engraving, which afforded much more detail; then later, to etching.

I’ve been reading Richard Holmes’s The Age of Wonder (2009 Winton Book Prize winner), and found myself utterly fascinated by the tales of a young Joseph Banks and his journey on HMS Endeavour. Amongst all the crew, tools and instruments, Banks commissioned two young artists to accompany him on the trip, Sydney Parkinson and Alexander Buchan. Whilst Buchan died of an epileptic fit only days after Endeavour came in sight of Tahiti, Parkinson spent months dutifully documenting Banks’s findings. Parkinson was young and talented; this portrait shows his thin fine hands, which nimbly sketched plants and humans alike. Parkinson had a real knack of capturing expression, as can be seen in his very detailed drawings of the native Tahitians.


Ramphastos dicolorus, the red-breasted toucan, by Elizabeth Gould. From ‘A monograph of the Ramphastidae, or family of toucans’ by John Gould (London, 1834).


Scientific illustration required a level of skill and innate ability that only few possessed. Flipping through the Print Shop one can see hundreds of beautiful drawings with intricate detail and beautiful, vibrant colours. Mark Catesby’s birds and flowers are a personal favourite, as are T. Cole’s creatures big and small, and most famously, Robert Hooke’s microscopic drawings. All are examples of the importance of drawing in the history of natural science. Ornithologist John Gould encouraged his wife Elizabeth to learn lithography so that she could illustrate his findings. Maria Sibylla Merian was an incredibly talented artist and accomplished naturalist (no small feat for a woman of her time). She published Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium in 1719 after her two-year trip around South America. Illustration was also incredibly important in maths, physics and astronomy, as demonstrated in these images of light refracting through prisms or William Herschel’s simple, but compelling, drawings of nebulae.


‘Draco alter ex Raia exsiccate concinnatus’ (another dragon fashioned from dried rays). From ‘Serpentum et draconum historiae’ (Natural history of snakes and dragons) by Ulisse Aldrovandi (Bologna, 1640).


Whilst most scientific illustrators drew from the world they are observing, some examples clearly have an element of imagination, as can be seen in Ulisse Aldrovandi’s depictions of dragons in Serpentum et draconum historiae (Natural history of snakes and dragons), in which he stitches together parts of fish and snakes to create fantastical creatures (as described by ‘honest men’). Dragons also feature in the first book to depict recreational fireworks in England – Pyrotechnia; or, A discourse of artificiall fire-works (1635) which is illustrated by drawings such as this one of St George fighting a fire-breathing dragon.

On Saturday 25 October, the Royal Society will be taking part in the Big Draw festival. We’ll be opening our doors to offer visitors the chance to not only view and be inspired by some of these stunning illustrations and engravings, but to become scientific illustrators themselves and try their hand at sketching some amazing artefacts and instruments from our archives. Children will be able to follow Aldrovandi’s example and create their own composite dinosaurs, which artist James McKay will then paint and name after them. And if you’d like to know more about the history of scientific illustration, don’t miss Sachiko Kusukawa’s talk on science as a visual culture in the 17th and 18th centuries. We look forward to seeing you!


Benjamin Palmer is an Events Officer in the Royal Society’s Public Engagement team.

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