Gardening and Drawing
Today is the birthday of the botanist and the incomparable botanical illustrator Georg Dionysius Ehret.
Georg was born in Heidelberg, Germany, to Ferdinand Christian Ehret, who was a gardener and also had a talent for drawing. He taught his son both skills- gardening and drawing - before he died.
Georg made his way to Regensburg. There, he met an apothecary who hired him to draw of specimens from his herbarium and garden. Georg earnestly took on the job, creating over 500 pieces in one year. Taking advantage of his young employee, the apothecary fired Georg and told him he should have completed 1,000 drawings. It was basically the apothecary's way of avoiding paying Georg.
After this dreadful experience, Georg made his way to England and worked at the significant botanical gardens - Including Chelsea Physic.
Isaac Rand, the first director of the Chelsea Physic Garden in London, told Georg to paint the rare plants in the garden. The uniqueness of the specimens added to the demand for Georg's work. As a result, Georg was on friendly terms with the plant collectors and naturalists of his time. Chelsea was formative professionally and personally for Georg; He married the head gardener's sister-in-law, Susanna Kennet.
In The Art of Botanical Illustration, Wilfrid Blunt noted that,
“By the middle of the century he had become a popular figure in London society: the highest nobility in England clamored to receive instruction from him,”
Indeed, the wealthiest woman in England, Margaret Cavendish Bentinck (the Duchess of Portland), gladly retained Georg as a drawing instructor. Struck by the luminescence of his work, and ultimately she would buy over 300 of his paintings.
In 1737, Georg was hired to draw by Sir Charles Wager, First Lord of the Admiralty. In August of that year, Wagner's personal garden is where Georg first observed the Magnolia grandiflora flowering. The bloom was so inspiring that Georg walked for an hour each way, from Chelsea to Wagner's house (in Fulham), to see and sketch every stage of the Magnolia grandiflora; from bud to full flower. Georg's work provided the world with the first Magnolia to be illustrated in England.
Beyond his work in England, Georg traveled throughout Europe in pursuit of his craft. He met Linnaeus in Holland when he was visiting the botanical garden in Leiden.
Linnaeus taught Georg exactly how he wanted plants to be dissected and drawn. By this time, Georg felt that his drawings were already aligned with Linnaeus, but the calibration didn't hurt; Georg's work made it possible for Linnaeus to show the differences between plants for his books. When Linnaeus released his catalog of rare plants, "Hortus Cliffortianus," in 1737, it featured 20 meticulous plates made by Georg.
As a result of partnering with Linnaeus, Georg understood plant structure on a level that rivaled most botanists. Georg's style of drawing is referred to as the Linnaean style.
Ehret's father could have never predicted the impact of teaching his son both gardening and drawing, but the two skills had come together in Georg in an extraordinary way. One expert wrote that,
"[Ehret] was the greatest artist-illustrator that Linnaeus had."
Today, Georg's work is difficult to source. Given the rarity of an Ehret drawing, they are expensive to acquire; pieces generally start around $1k (if you can find one.)
Just this past year, the NYBG organized an exhibit called "Georg Ehret: The Greatest Botanical Artist of the 1700s.” They featured 48 Ehret watercolors and engravings.