Until September 6, the Maximus Gallery at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History is displaying a collection of gardening catalogs ranging from 1612 to the end of the 19th century. In modern times a catalog might be seen as a mundane object, a mere list of items we now take for granted, but looking at this exhibit one understands the wonder that these catalogs and the plants they represented evoked among the peoples of Europe and the world. Americas for centuries. They communicate both an intimate knowledge of botany and the painstaking work required to depict plants in attractive ways.
The art in these catalogs is often very elaborate. In 17th century catalogs such as the Anthology by Dutch nurseryman Emanuel Sweert (1552-1612), plants are usually engraved side by side in intricate black and white detail. In the 19th century almost all catalogs were hand painted or later printed in bright colors. The images are often accompanied by prose at the intersection between scientific fact and religious faith. In one of these descriptions, the British gardener and naturalist George Loddiges (1784/1786-1846) writes of the Chinese hibiscus that “its flowers are magnificent and give us another example of the goodness of our gracious Creator” .
Maximus Gallery curator Linda Miller stresses the importance of appreciating not only the artistic and scientific value of the objects in the exhibition, but also the time and effort that went into their creation: by botanists who carefully discovered worlds under the petals of innumerable species; by the painters who, with their brushes, tore these worlds out of the ground and placed them delicately on sheets of paper; and by horticulturalists who established great gardens, incubating the flora of an entire world in which many places were yet known only by stories beheld in wonder.
The title of the exhibition, A medicine for the mind, was inspired by scenes like that of the Chelsea Physic Garden in London, which was established by the Worshipful Society of Apothicaries in 1673 to grow plants that could be used as medicine. A drawing of his vast grounds occupies much of the wall facing the entrance to the exhibition. Plants as a source of healing, comfort and joy are the common thread of the exhibition. Miller said that in a year plagued by a global pandemic and other traumatic events, interest in gardening and growing things has blossomed, and as day after night the cyclical replenishment of a garden offers the promise of a better future.
The exhibit does, however, include a potentially cautionary tale. In 1637, at the height of its golden age, the Dutch Republic suffered a socio-economic blow when the price of tulips crashed due to rampant speculation. A series of watercolors depicting the various bulbs of this Iranian flower with multicolored glory includes a particularly vivid type that is ribbed with dark red streaks.
The so-called Tulip Mania that engulfed the Netherlands is one of many events documented in this exhibit that links horticulture to broader historical concepts. Miller explains that gardening catalogs not only reflect the changing popularity of various plants, but also technological trends such as the evolution of color printing. Between 1848 and 1856, Charles M. Hovey (1810-1887) published a series of illustrated books entitled The Fruits of America, which he defines in terms of national prestige for the nascent United States. “There is also a national pride, which I feel in publishing a work like this,” Hovey wrote, “and that is that the delicious fruits that have been produced in our own country, many of which are surpassed by any of the foreign growth, will be fully represented here. A medicine for the mind is a stimulating experience, and one could venture to extrapolate from the material provided. But despite all the temptation to do so, Miller says it’s important to stay grounded in the apparent beauty and simple insights the exhibit has to offer.
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