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Portraits of hops

Extract from the article by Charles Baehni "Five Centuries of Botanical illustration" published in the 'Journal de Genève' number 94 on the 21-23 April 1962. Professor Baehni was the director at the time of the Botanical Gardens of Geneva.

During this period one still coloured in by hand black or sepia impressions. However, research into less expensive methods of print making led to the discovery of colour lithography and one witnessed the advent of botanical manuals full of images with somewhat hazy outlines and unbelievably opaque and ‘heavy’ colours. Having stated this, one cannot help but admire the coloured lithographs which Gavin Bone drew and painted for J. Brooke’s book The Wild Orchids of Britain (1950) and which demonstrate that this method can still hold real possibilities; but this is a rare exception.

Similarly, when black and white photographs and later photos in colour where taken by a ‘creative’ person, they were also sometimes useful particularly in works to do with flower cultivation, anatomy or physiology. But it is so easy and inexpensive simply to press a button that every botanist could suppose himself or herself an ‘artist’. Alas! this is far from being in fact true! There are too many things shown on a photograph such as all those grains of sand and all those blades of grass which blur the image. The famous phenomena of the ‘instantaneous’ as well as the ruled frame that one is obliged to use in  this type of photography actually makes the outlines nebulous when viewed  with a magnifying glass. This is the reason why nowadays the best illustrations are arrived at using line drawings done in black ink which are transposed photographically onto zinc plates.  These are then treated rather like etchings, producing excellent reproductions. When one is lucky enough to have good artists like Stella Ross-Craig  -who is certainly one the best representing this particular school of doing things; one obtains results that are comparable to the best engravers of the XVI and XVII centuries. Moreover, this method has the advantage of allowing images to be reproduced in large quantities. 

The modern taste for art devoid of embellishments which was once so popular with our forefathers no doubt has had an influence on today’s artists. I have already mentioned G. Born for his lithographs in colour, S.Ross-Craig for her ink drawings and now I want to draw attention to the art of the engraver Roger Descombes whose hundred or so images of flowers assembled at the Cabinet des estampes [museum in Geneva] demonstrate the vitality of copper-plate engraving while that of Charles Poluzzi, master of water-colouring, also shows with equal joyful gusto that this old art form is still very much alive. However, engraving and water-colouring needs to be transposed in such a way so that multiple copies can be made in great numbers and while it is true that present day techniques are capable of producing good colour copies which are close to the originals, they cannot quite match them yet.

                                                  Engraving by Roger Descombes

Translation by Louise Descombes, November 2010

Charles Baehni -Directeur du Conservatoire botanique de Genève