Historical Botany

Our attention was recently drawn to a remarkable series of books by Henry Noltie, published by the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, that have to do with studies of Indian flora during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and are therefore of interest both from a historical as well as botanical point of view... Only one of these has an Indian edition and is on our website (naturally) but we hear that there may be Indian reprints of the others soon- and that would be really great! At any rate, they are well worth knowing about.

Indian Botanical Drawings 1793–1868 tells the story of the collections of Indian flora made by botanists at the RBGE who also commissioned Indian artists to make paintings of the plants to supplement the specimens and written descriptions. The paintings have languished largely unknown in the Library of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. A selection of 62 of these spectacular illustrations was conserved and exhibited in Inverleith House in 1998, as part of the celebrations for the 50th anniversary of Indian Independence. These are reproduced in full colour in the book.

A rich account of sub-continental journeys, scientific exploration and remarkable artistry is brought to light in Robert Wight and the Botanical Drawings of Rungiah & Govindoo. A three-volume boxed set, it is devoted to Robert Wight and the stunning botanical drawings undertakenfor him by two Indian artists during a period in which he discovered some 1,200 new plant species and 100 genera of South Indian flora, while employed by the East India Company during the early part of the 19th century.

Often accompanied by an artist, Wight (1796–1872) travelled extensively through the southern Indian states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh. Many of the resulting collections – including some 23,000 preserved herbarium plant specimens and 700 original paintings - are now held at RBGE, where he studied botany in 1816 and 1817. This rich background was the inspiration for a five year project for RBGE taxonomist Noltie, whose trilogy covers Wight's life and work as an East India Company surgeon and his major contributions to taxonomy and economic botany; the illustrated works of the Indian artists, featuring some 200 of the drawings commissioned by Robert Wight between 1826 and 1853 and a travelogue, describing the author's own journeys in search of Wight in Britain and India, illustrated with his own photographs.

The books- which are really stunning- are not very expensive, ranging from 20- 50 pounds plus shipping. They can be obtained on order; write in to us at mail@scholarswithoutborders.in.

Dapuri Drawings is about a remarkable collection of botanical drawings in safekeeping at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. These watercolors were commissioned by Alexander Gibson, an East India Company surgeon, and depict plants grown in the botanic gardens under his control in the Bombay Presidency. They are the work of an unknown Portuguese-Indian artist, made between 1847 and 1850. Mapin published the Indian edition of this book in 2002. A steal at Rs 1950, the book is listed in our Art section.