A new exhibition celebrating the scientific illustrations of Franz Bauer FRS and his brother Ferdinand opened at Teylers Museum in Haarlem, Netherlands on 2 February 2019. The exhibition brings together rarely seen original watercolours from the Royal Society archive with works from Teylers and other international collections – for the first and possibly last time.
Franz and Ferdinand Bauer were probably the most skilled botanical painters of the 18th and 19th centuries. They operated in a time of post-Captain Cook voyages of discovery, when the first images of (only slightly wonky) kangaroos were seen in Europe; with Matthew Flinders charting Australia, and the period culminating in Darwin’s travels on HMS Beagle. These journeys set out not only to map new lands and trade routes but also to seek knowledge. The desire to study and classify the natural world, and to disseminate the results, led to a demand for skilled scientific illustrators, whose work might accurately identify species as well as being beautiful to behold.
Some art historians credit Franz Andreas Bauer (1758-1840), the elder of the brothers, as the greatest-ever botanical artist for his unequalled ability to marry accuracy and beauty. He was painting plants at a time of great advancements in botany. As a result of the work of Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus there was an increased emphasis on the importance of plant anatomy for delineation and identification of species. Bauer was probably the first artist to include accurate dissections of plant anatomy and reproductive systems in his paintings, and was able to do so in minute detail thanks to developments in microscope technology. He may also have made use of the newly invented camera lucida.
Franz was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1821, the citation on his certificate of election recognising both his skills as an artist and as a botanist and describing him as:
‘A Gentleman versed in Botanical pursuits in no common degree; and whose deep researches into the anatomy of Plants have been so extensive; that there is no part of Botany which is not indebted to his labours’.
The works from the Royal Society now on exhibition at Teylers are, however, not botanical. They are dissections of animals which accompanied papers by the anatomist Everard Home (FRS and Vice President of the Royal Society) published in the Philosophical Transactions. In the exhibition, the original watercolours can be seen alongside the published papers, which feature engravings of Franz’s paintings executed by the Basire family of engravers. Such microscopical work of animal anatomy seems a natural extension of Franz’s precision plant paintings, and presents an interesting additional facet of his career when exhibited alongside his botanical artwork.
As courier for the works on loan from the Royal Society, I got a sneak peek as the exhibition was taking shape. In the midst of unpacking, condition checking and framing with the Museum’s conservators (only occasionally getting in the way of the curatorial team who were expertly hanging the works and coordinating international deliveries and couriers), I got the sense that it was shaping up to be a stunning exhibition. I particularly like the fact that visitors can take a seat and look through some of the books as well as admiring the Bauers’ works on the wall and behind glass. This ethos of encouraging deeper engagement and investigation is a nice nod to the origin of Teylers Museum as a research collection in 1778, before it later became a publically accessible museum.
The Royal Society was an important source of opportunities for Franz and Ferdinand. In 1789 it was Joseph Banks, naturalist from Cook’s Endeavour voyage, President of the Royal Society, patron of everything natural science-related, and by then also unofficial superintendent of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, who engaged Franz as Kew’s first botanical artist and ‘Botanick Painter to His Majesty’ King George III. For Ferdinand Bauer, Banks secured the role of natural history illustrator on the voyage of Matthew Flinders to circumnavigate Australia on HMS Investigator.
Franz worked at Kew for 40 years (1789-1829), painting thousands of new and notable plant species that Banks used his influence to secure from all over the world: wherever British expeditions ventured, plants were to be sent back to Kew and examined scientifically for the first time. The more exotic species could be cultivated in Kew’s glasshouses, economically useful plants could have their potential evaluated, and all could have their portraits painted by Franz. These were engraved, printed and published for the benefit of the scientific and horticultural communities.
Many of the plants painted by Franz Bauer at Kew are now in the collection of the Natural History Museum in London. They have loaned some to Teylers Museum for their exhibition, including his most iconic images of the genus Strelitzia or ‘bird of paradise flower’. Due to the delicate and light-sensitive nature of these watercolour works, this may be the last time they can be put on public display.
Franz worked by creating detailed preliminary sketches in graphite which he would partially colour, making use of a code of numbers which correlated to specific shades recorded in a colour chart. These would then be used as reference to create a second complete watercolour composition. This system was employed to a greater extent by Ferdinand, who was the greater traveller of the two, going on expeditions to document flora and fauna from Greece (Flora Graeca) to Australia (Prodromus Florae Novae Hollandiae et Insulae van Diemen). Working quickly in the field, Ferdinand did not have time to colour his drawings and so developed an increasingly complex and detailed colour code, listing 1,000 different shades including 200 kinds of green and adding letters to indicate texture and sheen.
Royal Society Executive Director Julie Maxton spoke at the opening of the exhibition in Teylers’ beautiful lecture theatre, where scientific talks and demonstrations have been delivered to an audience of international visitors since the nineteenth century. The Royal Society is proud to be part of continuing this tradition of collaboration and exchange in culture and science, which is more important than ever. Those of us from the Society who have been lucky enough to see the exhibition already think our hosts in the Netherlands have put on a great show and we encourage you all to visit.
The exhibition brings together botanical and zoological paintings of both brothers from diverse international collections, presenting an exciting opportunity to take in their oeuvre in the unique surroundings of Teylers, the oldest museum in the Netherlands. The paintings can be seen alongside preparatory drawings and published works, plus intriguing artefacts such as the original numbered colour charts and Franz’s travelling desk. The exhibition runs until 12 May 2019.