Hunt Institute's collection of botanicals continues to bloom
By Kurt Shaw
Published: Saturday, May 25, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
The exhibit “What We Collect: Recent Art Acquisitions 2007–2012,” on display on the top floor of the Hunt Library at Carnegie Mellon University, gives insight into one of Pittsburgh's best kept secrets, the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation.
“It shows the type of things we collect and the categories they fall into,” says Lugene Bruno, curator of art at the Hunt Institute. “We grouped them by subject matter so that people can get a hold on the type of things in our general collection of over 29,000 artworks.”
Yes, that's correct, more than 29,000 artworks.
Since its founding more than 50 years ago by Pittsburgh book and botany enthusiast Rachel McMasters Miller Hunt (1882-1963), the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation has become internationally renown as being the world's largest independent repository for all things related to botanical art, with the most comprehensive collection of contemporary botanical art in the world — and an extensive historical collection.
Among its holdings, the institute has watercolors, drawings and prints; book and serial titles; portraits; and autograph letters and manuscripts.
The pieces on display in this exhibit, which were all recently acquired chiefly through donation, were published in scientific floras, monographs, journals, websites, textbooks and horticultural publications or produced solely for exhibit.
They include watercolors on paper and vellum; ink, graphite and charcoal drawings; a variety of prints made with such printmaking techniques as copper etching, wood engraving, vitreography and nature printing; and gelatin silver photographs.
Most amazing are the original watercolors for their high level of detail. For example, a delicately painted, larger-than-life watercolor of a weed, “Rumex obtusifolius leaf,” by English artist Julia Trickey is a real standout for its magnified detail.
Trained in visual communication, Trickey became interested in botanical art in 1998. She now tutors and exhibits her work regularly. She has received several medals from the Royal Horticultural Society, and her work is in public and private collections.
As seen in this example, Trickey prefers to draw from imperfect specimens, including leaves and seed heads. Two of Trickey's deteriorated autumn-leaf subjects were on loan for the Institute's “12th International Exhibition of Botanical Art & Illustration” (2007), and the artist decided to donate this piece for the Hunt Institute's permanent collection shortly thereafter.
Bruno says many artists who are selected for the International Exhibition, which is held every three years, choose to donate their pieces to the permanent collection, making for an ever-growing and endlessly fascinating collection. For example, more than 30 of the 41 participating artists in the Institute's “14th International Exhibition of Botanical Art & Illustration,” slated for this fall, have already promised their works for the permanent collection.
“A lot of pieces come to us as gifts,” Bruno says. “And lot of things come to us through relationships we have developed over the years. Whether it's an artist or a collector, people who have had things for several years will come to us because this is a place where they know those things will be well cared for, curated and made accessible to the public.”
Of course, works of historical importance have been, and will always be, of keen interest. And thus, there are many items in that regard in this exhibit that have been donated by collectors.
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a widespread passion for the study of nature was stimulated by the publications of Swedish botanist and naturalist Carolus Linnaeus (1707–78), whose sexual system of plant classification made identification accessible to the amateur naturalist. This example was to be used as a guide by a learned amateur in discovering and identifying the local flora of Germany.
Several pages from an 18th-century German handbook by a man named Powe and Christian Schkuhr (1741-1811) illustrate that botany was a rapidly evolving field of scientific study in those early years.
Schkuhr was a botanist at the University of Wittenberg. His manual of mostly wild plants and some foreign plants growing in Germany was published in two editions. Sources note that he illustrated and engraved the plates, using the microscope to render plant details, but five of the items that were donated to the collection along with the second edition of volumes 1 through 4 are watercolors or watercolors and cut sections of hand-colored engravings glued to the same piece of paper.
On these, the illustrator Powe has signed the watercolor. “We have yet to determine anything about the artist Powe and his relationship to Schkuhr,” says Bruno, who surmises that these original watercolors and combinations of watercolors and hand-colored engravings were working proofs for the first (1787-91) or the second edition (1808) of Christian Schkuhr's “Botanisches Handbuch.”
Of course, a work need not be really old or relatively new to make it into the collection, and in some cases, not necessarily precious or rare. In the rear of the gallery hangs a late 19th-century wall chart and two ink drawings for a textbook prepared solely for educational purposes.
The drawings were completed in 1990 by Susan G. Monden for the book “Ethnic Culinary Herbs: A Guide to Identification and Cultivation in Hawaii” (Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press, 1990). Catering to the layman, this is an educational and cultural guide to herbs commonly grown and used in Hawaiian cuisine, which is influenced by flavors used in the Pacific Rim and Asia. Along with scientific drawings and photographs and cultivation information, it includes the scientific and common names in the several languages spoken in that state.
The wall chart, which is by a German artist named W.A. Meyn, is part of a series of instructional wall charts covering the anatomy, morphology and physiology of plants that were produced in the 1890s for the classroom by biologist and botanist Albert Frank (German, 1839-1900) and pharmacologist and botanist Alexander Tschirch (1856-1939, Germany/Switzerland).
“It's one of several that were rescued from a dumpster by a university professor,” Bruno says.
Wall charts, such as this example, were predominantly published in Germany from the late 19th to the early 20th centuries and sold throughout Europe and America. Bruno says that as education became more accessible, class sizes increased, and the scale of these charts, sometimes accompanied by textbooks, were important teaching tools.
The institute has acquired more than 170 wall charts from four different series through similar situations, which explains the current soiled condition of this lithograph. “We have cleaned a small section to show contrast,” Bruno says, “and after an upcoming workshop on surface cleaning, we will clean and include more examples from our collection in a future exhibition.”
On June 23, Bruno will speak further about the Hunt Institute's collection of instructional wall charts during the institute's annual two-day open house. The following day, assistant librarian Jeannette McDevitt will display some of Hunt Institute's more cherished botanical publications and speak about the dramas, disasters and absurdities that went on behind the scenes before these beautiful books could come to fruition in her talk “From Field to Folio: Stories Behind Botanical Publications.”
Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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