Plant Matters

by Professor Nicholas Thomas, Director, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge

Botany might be considered as a specific discipline, the province of scientists and students, but it has long been much more: an undisciplined realm in which inquiry, illustration, imagination and metaphor energise each other. Botanical knowledge is part of humanity’s history: Indigenous foragers, early horticulturalists, merchants and makers have all had to understand plants, their seasonality, their life cycles, their food value and the material qualities of woods and dyes have been known intimately, but from different perspectives, across epochs and continents. In the modern period, botany becomes vital, a task of the traveller and of the explorer, a cultural realm intimately associated with empire.

Scientists such as Joseph Banks were at once cosmopolitans and patriots. Their natural community of correspondence was European: Linnaeus and his followers wrote eagerly, read widely and crossed borders to visit collections, between Stockholm, Halle, Heidelberg, Montpellier, Paris, London, Madrid and elsewhere. On the other hand, Banks, like his mentor Phillip Miller of the Chelsea Physic Garden, was passionately interested in the scope for transplanting useful species between regions and nations, in particular for the benefit of his countrymen. One such endeavour, to take breadfruit from Tahiti to the West Indies, where it would provide cheaper food for slaves on British plantations, resulted in the most notorious mutiny in world history.

The culture of botany has extended across boundaries and binaries of all kinds. Both scientific and aesthetic, domestic and colonial, academic and commercial, it embrace both masculine field exploration and forms of illustration to which many women dedicated themselves. They included the extraordinary, scientifically-precise paper collages of Mary Delaney, the famous eighteenth-century bluestocking. Caroline Rothwell’s botanical works are the outcome of sustained engagement with botanical collections, in Cambridge and elsewhere. At the time she studied the plant specimens collected by Charles Darwin, in the University’s Herbarium, she was affiliated with the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, a major ethnographic collection in which artefacts associated with voyages to the Pacific and Australia, dating back to those of Captain James Cook, loom large. A large proportion of MAA’s collection is made of wood, leaf, bark, seeds and plant fibres of all kinds; it is not a botanical collection but a collection in which the botanical world is mediated by the lives of people from all over the world, and the practice of thousands of individual makers: sculptors, weavers of baskets, beaters and painters of barkcloth among them.

In the presence of Caroline Rothwell’s works, I am struck by the strange fashion in which botanical art has for so long been at once embodied and disembodied. In Linnean visualisations, plants are cut up and apart. Yet such images were also sensual, tending toward the fleshy. In some works, the women’s hands are poised, as Nina Miall points out, ready to either pluck or re-plant vibrant new expressions of archival specimens, further instantiating a process in which the natural and the artificial, the historical and the contemporary feed on each other and evolve. That evolution was once understood as improvement. Now it appears uncontrolled and uncontrollable. Caroline Rothwell’s plants are bright, disturbing, perhaps invasive, certainly fertile.