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Garden Eden: Masterpieces of Botanical Book Illustration

Garden Eden: Masterpieces of Botanical Book Illustration
H. Walter Lack.
Publication Date: 

paper, 576 p., $39.95

Botanical art began with a utilitarian purpose to accurately render plant life. In the world before photography, the aim was science; no other method of exchanging visual data existed for botanists around the globe. Before Linnaeus developed his universally recognized system of nomenclature, verbal descriptions were tenuous at best.

The considerable skill involved in the undertaking of accurate plant representations eventually grew into an art category of its own; hence, the fervor for botanical illustrations arose. New volumes on the topic proliferate at a considerable rate. The most noteworthy texts attempt the extraordinary task of documenting some part of the history of botanical illustration. Taschen's entry for 2001, Garden Eden: Masterpieces of Botanical Book Illustration, is not only one of the most important publications this year, but will likely transcend as a vital document recording the history of botanical illustration in Austria.

The book spans from 512 A.D. to the year 2000, covering 100 works from the collection of the Austrian National Library in Vienna. Presented chronologically, it not only illustrates the development of botanical art, but also its surprising variety of expression and style. Surprising because the general idea of botanical art as scientific study is challenged by works like the Codex Fuchs, where the accompanying narrative tells how illustrators "drew accurate cloves on an imaginary tree." Other works, like the highly stylized art of Redouté's famous Les Roses, make a strong historical statement concerning the shift from science to art. While botanical detail wasn't dispensed with, more and more often it gave way to a focus on plant beauty.

The historical narrative is perhaps the strongest part of this book. But it is also beautifully produced, each work attractively presented with information on all of the historical details and color examples on opposite and subsequent pages. An unusual and wonderful aspect is the physical quality of the book itself: The flexible cover holds a well-stitched spine that evenly distributes the weight of the open block of the book, allowing it to lie open easily.

For anyone interested in botanical illustration, Garden Eden is one of the most important compilations to date.

— Dan Scurek