Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Book Review: Merian's Antique Botanical Prints

Last week I posted about the exhibitions involving Maria Sibylla Merian in Maria Sibylla Merian - at the Getty Museum, Buckingham Palace and Kew Gardens. I said I'd also post my review of a book of Merian's Antique Botanical Prints CD-ROM and Book (Pictorial Archives) by Maria Sibylla Merian and published by Dover Publications - nut neglected to do so - so here it is. I'm not going to repeat the detail about who she is - save to say she is one of the most respected and remarkable women who ever drew and painted botanical and natural history subjects - and that she died in her 70th year in 1717.

All the engravings in the Merian book are taken from Erucarum Ortus, Alimentum et Paradoxa Metamorphosis published in Amsterdam in 1718. This was a book published by her daughter after her death and concerns the transformation of caterpillars in butterflies - and the plants associated with that process en route. The book is literally crawling with caterpillars as you can see from the images at the top!

You can actually take a look at a digital version of the book online - courtesy of Göttinger Digitalisierungszentrums. This is the digital version - which you can read in Latin! Alternatively view it in the DFG Viewer which makes life a little easier. There's a lot of text at the beginning - and I haven't located precisely where the plates start - but if you select a high page number and take a peek you can see more of the engravings which form the basis of this book. There seem to be black pages every other page - which I assume is the reverse of a plate. Here for example of Plate 46.

Now - assuming you don't want to read Latin and you just want to look at the images, it is actually a lot easier to do this using the book and the CD Rom - although you'll be paying to do so.

The huge advantage of the 48 page Dover Publications book it that it comes with a CD Rom which contains all the 150 images of engravings in the book which have been scanned at 600 dpi in six different formats (TIFF, PICT, EPS, BMP, JPEG, GIF). Most of the images are 4 to a page - but some pages just have one image. All images are supplied permission-free and are available for an applied use by graphic artists, craftspeople, students, and historians. The only limitation is that no more than 10 are used in any one project.

The CD Rom even comes with something called the Dover Design Manager which is a simple graphics editing program. However you don't need this to operate the CD - any graphics package could be used to access the images.

If you want to see the technique used for drawing these plants and insects you can magnify the images to inspect the drawing techniques used. Naturally, it's mostly about how line can be used to create weight and volume.

Unlike the Besler book, this book has no index and consequently guessing what some of the plants actually are can be a bit of a hit and miss exercise. Although I have to say I'm pretty confident that it's a tulip and an iris at the top of this post!

Now if you like this sort of thing, you'll be very pleased to hear that the Dover Publications book and CD is a very reasonable sum. I bought my copy in the UK for £13.50 - but it's less than half that price on

I'm in the process of creating a site which will index reviews of botanical art books - produced by me and others. It's not published yet but I'll let you know more about that soon.


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