The natural world

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An important early role of watercolour was the dissemination of knowledge. A category of botanical illustration developed from types of miniatures and manuscript illustration explored in the previous room. Many illustrators of the natural world were among the most technically gifted watercolourists of their age, whose work combined beauty with scientific accuracy. They developed a visual language which, once established, has remained standard up to the present day. 

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when travel, trade and voyages of discovery brought images of flora and fauna unknown to Western Europe, illustrators played a central role in making new knowledge visible. Acute observation and accurate delineation were critical for the identification and classification of new species. Florilegia, or pictorial flower books, captured the newest, rarest specimens growing in the gardens and hothouses of collectors, while printed volumes served both the scientific community and a curious public. 

The development of natural history illustration mirrors the evolution of science. Carl Linnaeus’s new classification system for plants, based on their observable reproductive characteristics, focused attention on the flower and fruit, and the portrayal of ideal specimens. Technological advances in microscopy made possible the drawing of dissections and magnifications of great detail and precision. Such drawings became integral to the study and understanding of the natural world.