James Sowerby, born in 1757, achieved over the course of his lifetime the almost inhuman feat of singlehandedly illustrating and cataloguing thousands of species of plants, animals, invertebrates, minerals and funghi of Great Britain and colonized Australia. A naturalist, engraver, illustrator and art historian, he bridged the gap between art and science, working closely with botanists to make his drawings as accurate and scientific as possible. At the time when the Rococo style of still life painting was popular, Sowerby was seeking to bring the natural world to a wider audience of gardeners and nature lovers.
His style was so exact and yet so beautifully executed, it suggests a care of attention to subject which must have bordered on obsession. Each of Sowerby’s plates is a small wonder in itself. Hand engraved and hand coloured, they reveal with such a sense of importance the secrets of the world at our feet. They are meticulously beautiful; juxtaposing whimsy with precision. His art would be at home on the pages of the finest fairy-tale books, and this is what I think of when I look at his drawings. Each flower, so lovingly reproduced, every seashell drawn with masterful detail, has the power to inspire childlike imagination.
Sowerby’s passion for his subject was so deeply rooted that he passed it on to his sons and grandsons, and they formed a legendary family of illustrators of natural history; his descendants completed over 5,000 illustrations among them, focussing on mycology, conchology, and mineralogy. Until his grandson died in 1921, there were Sowerbys working as nature illustrators from the time James first graduated the Royal Academy in the 1780s and started his apprenticeship.
In 1790 he began what became known as Sowerby’s Botany; a 36 volume work on the botany of England which took 24 years to complete, and which contained 2,592 of his plates. His next project was the Mineral Conchology of Great Britain, a record of English invertebrate fossils. This volume was so extensive that it was completed by his sons 34 years after it was begun.
Sowerby’s most notable accomplishment was his dedication to his craft. What must have driven him to create such a huge body of work? It’s as though he was born to give the world his record of England’s natural world as it was in his time; it was his life’s purpose and he set about it with an unparalleled urgency. The unique combination of skill, technique, aesthetic beauty, and superlative work ethic set him at the forefront of his field. The fact that he had time to curate and build a museum out of his own collection of natural specimens, acquire the first recorded meteorite to land in England, fall in love, marry, and sire an empire while doing it is truly an astonishing testament to the artistic spirit.