James Sowerby was the paterfamilias of a gifted family of British botanical and natural science illustrators whose members amassed an impressive record of achievements spanning three generations.
Sowerby enjoyed a dual career, achieving distinction both as an outstanding artist and as a keen scientist whose research interests ranged from the study of British fossils and mushrooms to animals and minerals. Unlike other flower painters of the time, whose work tended toward pleasing wealthy patrons, he worked directly with scientists. Like many of his fellow artists, however, Sowerby sketched quickly in a pencil line that was full of vigor and freshness. (1:212) He maintained an extensive correspondence with naturalists, encouraging them in their work, and inviting them to send him specimens for study and analysis. In return, Sowerby sent specimens from his collection and reprints of his publications, thereby stimulating further research. (2:552.)
Born in London, England, on March 21, 1757, he was the son of John and Arabella Sowerby. After attending the Royal Academy Schools, James was apprenticed to the marine painter, Richard Wright. Following a period of self-questioning on which direction his career should take, he chose flower painting.
Sowerby married Anne de Carle of Norwich, England. Their sons, James de Carle (1787-1871) and George Brettingham, (1788-1854), from an early age, were invaluable in assisting their father in his work. James de Carle's grandchildren likewise were talented artists and naturalists; consequently, "...throughout the nineteenth century there were Sowerby's illustrating works of natural history." (2:522)
During his stay in London, the eminent French magistrate/botanist, L'Hértier de Brutelle, became acquainted with the young artists work and commissioned him to make the floral illustrations for his monograph on the geranium, Geranologia. L'Hértier is generally credited as being the first to discover and promote Sowerby's career. (5:212) His illustrations also appear in two later L'Hértier books. In 1787, William Curtis, Director of the Chelsea Physic Garden, chose Sowerby to create as well as engrave illustrations for Curtis' The Botanical Magazine - the first botanical journal published in England. About seventy of the illustrations in the first four volumes are the work of Sowerby. Some of the unsigned drawings in volume 1 are now known to be his. (1:220)
The English botany; or colored figures of British plants... is by far Sowerby's most celebrated achievement. The intensive work demanded for this project (he both drew and engraved the plates) caused Sowerby's to end association with Curtis.
English botany is a periodical, published in 36 issues and 267 numbers, for over twenty-four years. Still today, it is regarded as an authoritative reference source. (5:222) It features almost 2,500 beautiful illustrations in color. These are accompanied by exacting descriptions of the plants prepared by the noted British botanist, Sir James Edward Smith.
With the first issues there was this problem: Smith's name was withheld from appearing as author, at his own request. Since James Sowerby's was the only name appearing on the title page, it is not surprising that the work became popularly known as "Sowerby's Botany." This offended Smith because it promoted idea that the illustrations were the core of the work, at the expense of plant descriptions that accompanied them. He felt relegated to the role of the overlooked author.
Responding to a friend's letter praising Sowerby's illustrations, Smith wrote that only a superficial knowledge was gained from the drawings - of little value unless accompanied by careful reading of the text. But, for an amateur, as Sanders has written, primarily concerned with recognizing, naming, and growing plants, the detailed illustrations in color are quite helpful, and they may be the only source of information a layperson consults. (3:132)
The issues between artist and writer were eventually settled, and later issues of English Botany credited Smith as author and Sowerby as illustrator. In the years that followed, Sowerby and Smith collaborated on at least six other publications.
Sowerby has a publication list that is long and varied. From 1789-91, he published Florist's luxurians or the florist's delight; and Colored figures of English fungi or mushrooms, 4 vols. Later, Sowerby illustrated Smith's Exotic botany, 1804; and he engraved the plates for Sibthrop's Flora Graeca, 10 vols. 1806-40. Also, Sowerby made the plates for Flora Londinensis; while for James Smith, he once again made hand-colored engravings of flowering plants - this time for Icones pictae plantarum... For the student, he wrote A botanical drawing-book, or an easy introduction to drawing flowers according to nature. Stafleu and Cowan (4) has an extensive list of his published works, as does the Dictionary of Scientific Biography (3:552-3)
A comprehensive collection of James Sowerby's work is maintained at the British Museum (Natural History) in London. It includes his drawings and specimen collection for English Botany, about 5,000 items from his fossil collection, and a large collection of his personal correspondence. (2:553) Active to the last, James Sowerby's productive life ended in the city of his birth on October 25, 1822.
By Huber M. Walsh, Library Volunteer
- Blunt, Wilfrid and William T. Stearn. The art of botanical illustration. London: Antique Collectors Club, Limited, 1994.
- Eyles, Joan M. "Sowerby" [in] Charles Coulston, Ed. Dictionary of scientific biography, Volume xii. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1970-1980.
- Saunders, Gill. Picturing Plants: An analytical history of botanical illustration. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, in association with The Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1995.
- Stafleu and Richard S. Cowan. Taxonomic literature: a selective guide to botanical taxonomic literature...v.5. Utrecht: Bohn Schectema & Holkema, 1986. Pp. 759-762.
- Tomasi, Lucia Tongiorgi. An Oak Spring flora; flower illustration from the fifteenth century to the present time. Upperville, Viriginia: Oak Spring Garden Library, 1997.