Richard Waller’s ‘Limned Plants’

By Sachiko Kusukawa

Watercolour study of knapweed and cornflower by Richard Waller (d. 1715). © Royal Society Archives, MS/131/40
Watercolour study of knapweed and cornflower by Richard Waller (d. 1715). © Royal Society Archives, MS/131/40

This drawing shows two plants common in England, the knapweed (Centaurea nigra) and the cornflower (Centaurea cyanus). Each plant is shown in two parts, one showing the root with the stem and leaves, and the other showing the remainder of the plant with leaves and flowers. This was a well-known convention to show plants whose full features didn’t quite fit the space available. It also allowed the pith to be shown through an oblique cut at both ends.

Richard Waller, Watercolour study (detail).
Richard Waller, Watercolour study (detail).

At the top in the middle is a pistil in two sizes: one likely the actual size, and the other, enlarged with a microscope. Reproductive organs of plants had been studied since Andrea Cesalpino (1519-1603), and viewed as key to morphological classification by fellows of the Royal Society such as John Ray (1627-1705). Showing actual and microscopic views was a convention popularized in Robert Hooke’s (1635-1703) Micrographia (1665 – see for example the actual and enlarged full stop).

 

Richard Waller, cross-section on Watercolour study of knapweed and cornflower (detail)
Richard Waller, cross-section on Watercolour study of knapweed and cornflower (detail)

At the bottom centre is a microscopic view of a cross section of the stem. Such anatomical structures of plants were of interest to Fellows such as Nehemiah Grew, Francis Willughby and John Ray who wanted to understand the motion of sap in plants.

 

The inscriptions at the top identify the plants by reference to printed books. ‘Iacea nigra Ger: Nigra vulg. Park. Knap=weed or Matfellon’ means that the plant was called ‘Iacea nigra’ in John Gerard’s Herbal (1597, p. 588) and ‘Iacea nigra vulgaris’ in John Parkinson’s Theatrum botanicum (1640, p. 468), which Parkinson also identified as ‘our common matfellon or knapweede’. ‘Cyanus I.B. Cyanus Minor Vulg. Ger. Park. Blew=bottle’ meant that it was the plant identified as ‘Cyanus’ in Jean Bauhin’s Historia Plantarum Universalis (1650-51) and ‘Cyanus minor vulgaris’ by both Gerard and Parkinson.

Richard Waller, inscription on Watercolour study of knapweed and cornflower (detail)
Richard Waller, inscription on Watercolour study of knapweed and cornflower (detail)

The numbering of these plants as ‘46’ and ‘47’ implies that this sheet was part of a series, which it indeed was. The books cited were standard herbals available in Europe and in England. Because the same plant could be known under different names in this period, it was usual to cite multiple authorities. This also ensured that one did not claim a new discovery in vain.

This watercolour is signed ‘Ric: Waller pinx[it]– Richard Waller painted [this]’. Richard Waller (d. 1715) was elected fellow of the Royal Society in 1681, and served as its Secretary (1687-1709, 1710 -1714).

Richard Waller, signature on Watercolour study (detail)
Richard Waller, signature on Watercolour study (detail)

He was among a handful of Fellows of the Royal Society who were graphically proficient. He most likely learnt to paint from his mother Mrs Mary Moore (1633-1716), whose painting of ‘Thomas More’ (or rather a painting after Holbein’s Thomas Cromwell) was donated to the Bodleian Library by Robert Whitehall in 1674. At the meeting of the Royal Society on 11 June 1713 (Royal Society Archives, Journal Book Original, vol. 11), it was reported that Waller had  ‘shown several Draughts of Grasses and some other common wild Plants, which he had drawn in Water Colours by the life, of the natural size: In the Grasses one part, viz. as much as belonged to the Production of one Grain or seed was represented as seen by the microscope’. The ‘natural size’ and the microscopic views of the reproductive parts confirm that this drawing must belong to this group of watercolours shown to the Society. It is likely that Waller had been working on these since 1689, when Hooke recorded in his diary seeing his ‘limned plants’. The drawings were shown to the Royal Society in November 1691 (Royal Society Archives, Journal Book Original, vol. 9), and judged ‘to be drawn with the utmost degree of curiosity’. Curiosity here carries the period sense of studious attention to details, and ‘limning’ – originally the technique of creating miniature portraits – was a fitting method by which to express details, as can be seen here particularly in the flower heads of the knapweed with the use of subtly different colours. It may appear odd that a Fellow of the Royal Society in late seventeenth century would bother to draw common plants found in England rather than seek out the exotic or rare species. Waller appears to have been inspired by John Ray’s morphological classification of plants (by seed leaves, flowering/non-flowering plants, reproductive organs) in the latter’s Historia plantarum (1686-1688). Waller thought that a pictorial scheme following Ray’s classification could enable ‘a man unskillfull in Botanicks … to know the name of any of these plants growing in England’ (Royal Society Archives, Journal Book Copy, vol. 8). A systematic classification of plants required information on the exotic as well as the common, and while Waller was conversant with the standard European works on plants at the time, he was also interested in enabling those in England with no botanical training to identify the plants that grew around them.

This drawing is a beautiful example of how ‘limning’ with a fine brush and subtle colours expressed morphological, anatomical and microscopic details that interested Fellows of the Royal Society at the time. Placing the plant among known, standard works of the period ensured that its identification was reliable, and the drawing could then be used further for the purposes of classification or edification. But we still know too little about the role of graphic techniques and training in historical observational practices at the early Royal Society.

Further Reading

Waller’s ‘limning’ of fossils have been rediscovered recently alongside Hooke’s drawings, S. Kusukawa, ‘The Fossil Drawings by Robert Hooke and Richard Waller‘, Notes and Records of the Royal Society, 67 (2013), 123-38.

The extent to which the extant drawings formed part of Waller’s pictorial table is pursued in L.R. Griffing, ‘Who invented the dichotomous key? Richard Waller’s watercolors of the herbs of Britain‘, American Journal of Botany 98-12 (2011).

Waller became a close friend of Hooke’s, whose biography he composed, see N. Moxham, ‘An experimental “Life” for an experimental life: Richard Waller’s biography of Robert Hooke (1705)’, British Journal for the History of Science (2016).

For Mary Moore’s tract on women’s rights, see Frances Teague and Margaret J. M. Ezell, Educating English daughters: late seventeenth-century debates (Toronto and Tempe, AZ: Iter and MRTS, 2016).

For Waller’s attempt to stabilize colour terminology to render more reliable descriptions of flora and fauna, see Sachiko Kusukawa, ‘Richard Waller’s Colour Chart (1686)’, in Colour histories. Science, art, and technology in the 17th and 18th centuries, ed. by M. Bushart and F. Steinle (Berlin: W. de Gruyter, 2015).