Hunt displays Donovan watercolors

The flowers from the United Kingdom’s botanical gardens of the 1820s may be relics of the past. However, Edward Donovan’s watercolors of them make his exhibit in the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation the next best thing.

Donovan, born in Cork, Ireland in 1768, was a natural history collector, illustrator for natural history publications, and owner of the London Museum and Institute of Natural History. His published works included natural histories of British birds, plants, insects, shells, and fish, as well as the insects of China and India.

The Hunt exhibit focuses on Donovan’s fascination with plants and flowers and shows his collection of watercolors that depicted the exotic flowers of the decade, which were all drawn between 1823 and 1830. The flowers were owned by wealthy estate owners, who placed them in their personal gardens. Donovan came from a wealthy family himself, and thus ran in the same social circles. The flowers were obtained from colonial leaders and explorers from locations all around the world, including China, Chile, Mexico, New Zealand, Nepal, Siberia, and the eastern United States. Many of them were sent as gifts to the estate owners.

Donovan’s watercolors are delicately depicted, each with his initials, E.D., etched in pencil in the lower right-hand corner. The careful preservation of Donovan’s work makes them look relatively recent, in no way appearing as watercolors done almost 200 years ago. Although drawn two-dimensionally, the flowers look realistic and, at first glance, it is hard to tell that they have been painted.

The bottoms of the paintings include not only Donovan’s initials, but also a series of hyphenated numbers. While at first scholars were not familiar with these numbers, they later realized that Donovan had documented the Linnaean arrangements (a biological classification method) of each of his depicted flowers. Some of Donovan’s writings on the bottoms of his watercolors even include the names of estate owners from whose gardens the flowers came from.

A part of the exhibition puts the open pages of Curtis Botanical Magazine side-by-side with some of Donovan’s depictions of the same flowers. The clerodendrum, for example, looks remarkably similar in both representations, which are from the same year, 1824.

The flowers in Donovan’s paintings include begonias, chrysanthemums, azaleas, and a number of unique hybrids that were completely new to the people in the United Kingdom, as the plants had only previously been known in their native areas.

However, Donovan’s work was part of a larger movement of flower identification by amateur naturalists and trained botanists worldwide.
The 1820s were a decade of great growth for horticultural and scientific societies. Donovan himself was a member of two such organizations, the Linnaean Society and the Wernerian Natural History Society. The largest group of this type, the Horticultural Society of London was established in 1804 and created its first garden in 1821, a botanical garden open to the public. Donovan depicted several flowers from this garden, as noted by the “H.S.” in the lower right-hand corner of many of his watercolors. The wealthy estate owners also greatly expanded their flower collections during this time into arboretums, greenhouses, gardens, and conservatories.

Donovan’s watercolors were tipped into five albums and combined into a book published in 1830. However, despite the success of Donovan’s publication, his life worsened soon after the book was released.

In 1817, the Napoleonic wars resulted in the closing of Donovan’s museum, the London Museum and Institute of Natural History, which caused an economic depression that severely hit Donovan and his family and did not allow him enough money to continue his career. Although his book remained popular, he had sold 50 percent of its rights to his publishers. The publishers took advantage of Donovan and kept an even higher percentage of the proceeds. Donovan published an essay in 1833, pleading for the public’s assistance and threatening to sue the publishers. However, the response to his plea was minimal at best. Consequently, Donovan lived in poverty until 1837 when he died in London of natural causes. His family was left impoverished.

Donovan’s legacy lives on through his many watercolors. The works currently on display came from Rachel McMasters Miller Hunt’s personal collection. Hunt, born in 1882, had a strong affinity for plants and gardens from her youth, as well as a fascination with rare and old books. Thus, Donovan’s botanical book was keen to her interest. Hunt’s collection alone contains 709 of his works, only some of which are displayed in the exhibit.