The Yale Center for British Art houses the largest collection of British art outside the United Kingdom. Presented to the university by Paul Mellon (Yale College, Class of 1929), the collection reflects the development of British art and culture from the Elizabethan period onward. The Center’s collections include more than 2,000 paintings and 250 sculptures, 20,000 drawings and watercolors, 40,000 prints, and 35,000 rare books and manuscripts. More than 40,000 volumes supporting research in British art and related fields are available in the Center’s library. The collections provide an exceptional resource for understanding the story of British art, life, society, and culture in its richness and depth, including works related to early discovery and exploration, natural history, and empire.
The slideshow highlights above are examples of works in the Center’s collections related to the environmental humanities. The works range from an early manuscript on parchment of flora and fauna, eighteenth and nineteenth century oil paintings of human interactions with the natural world, and notebooks overstuffed with natural specimens, to contemporary works that ask questions about consumerism and the impact that humans have on the environment. Additional details on these works are provided below.
This exquisitely drawn pattern book of plants and animals, completed around 1500, is one of the great treasures of the Center’s collections. The beautiful drawings of animals, birds, flowers, and trees provide a remarkable picture of the depth of English knowledge of natural history in the Tudor period. The manuscript likely was compiled as a source book for the decoration of painted ceilings, tapestry, or stained glass.
One of the most significant works of natural history is the archival collection related to James Bruce (1730–1794), a Scottish diplomat and explorer who, between 1767 and 1773, attempted to discover the source of the Nile in Abyssinia (now Ethiopia and Eritrea). He was accompanied on his expedition by the talented Italian draftsman Luigi Balugani, who recorded the flora and fauna of the region, such as the Euphorbia abyssinica illustrated here.
One of twenty watercolors, drawn on parchment, by the naturalist-artist James Bolton (1735-1799), from the natural history cabinet of noted botanist and collector Anna Blackburne (1726-1793). The drawings depict birds, plants, butterflies, insects, and shells native to Great Britain, and examples from North and South America. Bolton’s lively scene follows in the tradition of naturalists and artists such as Mark Catesby and Maria Sybilla Merian, who set a style for depicting flora and fauna directly engaged with their habitats. In this watercolor, like Catesby and Merian, Bolton creates a world that brings together flora and fauna in a way that they would never have been seen in nature, while still depicting them exactingly enough to serve as recognizable examples of their type.
“In this portrait the Browne family engage in the fashionable pursuits dictated by eighteenth-century ideals of polite behavior, but with a twist. It is Mr. Browne, Principal Clerk of the Westminster Fire Office insurance company, who serenely sketches by the lakeside, a traditionally female activity in conversation pieces. His wife, hitching up her skirt to reveal a bright pink petticoat, has confidently cast out her line and snared a catch, which her son George unhooks for her. The Brownes are pushed to the right side of the canvas; more than half of the picture surface is given over to the depiction of the landscape that these Londoners temporarily inhabit.” – Cassandra Albinson, 2007
“Lear spent the months of April and May 1868 in Corsica. He was in the forest of Valdoniello on May 12 through 14. In the published journal of his Corsican visit, he commented on the vastness of the forest and noted: “No portion of this sublime forest landscape is more striking than the flat tops of some of the singularly Turneresque or Martinesque pines, relieving almost positively black against the great distance beyond.” He was concerned about the ravages of commercial logging in the forest, but admitted that the process had its aesthetic benefits, at least in the short term: “It must be confessed that the very thinning of Valdoniello, which is preluding its downfall, has its advantages in providing space for light and shadow, for which there was no room in the close dense masses of wood before the work of destruction began.”
–Scott Wilcox, Edward Lear and the Art of Travel, 2000
Mary Gibbs Shapter’s notebook is a unique representation of how an amateur naturalist’s passion for collecting can defy the physical constraints of a bound volume, but is only one of many examples of amateur naturalists’ collections held by the Rare Books and Manuscripts department at the Center. Shapter was an artist (the Center has five of her sketchbooks in its collections), living in London, and clearly spent much of her time outdoors, collecting specimens and making observations. Her marvelous collecting notebook is doubled in girth through the loose notes, drawings, leaves, and seeds she had tucked among the pages. Her annotations give the English and Latin names, characteristics, information on different kinds of wood, and quotations from various printed sources. She often notes the precise location of a certain tree, such as “this leaf is from the last tree of Windsor Forest close to Canon Hill” or “The Weeping Wych Elm, Hyde Park.”
Clare Leighton, popular for her illustrations of country life and agricultural scenes, created a set of posters for the Empire Marketing Board (a government funded committee) between 1926-1933. By commissioning established artists such as Leighton to design posters like Harvest, the Empire Marketing Board hoped to direct British consumers to buy locally produced goods.
“My work often deals with the impact that humans have on the environment. This project was inspired by the ecological thinker Paul Hawken, who noted that the average Western adult can recognize over one thousand brand names or logos, but fewer than ten local indigenous plants. I began posing the question to people, “Which nine wild plants could you confidently identify?” The “Herbarium” drawings [of the poppy, buttercup, and dandelion seen on the wall here] are botanically correct images of the nine wild plants that my quite unscientific survey revealed as the “most recognized” wild plants in Britain. The leaves, stalks, and petals are collages made from brand names and logos picked up like a bunch of wild blooms from the streets of London. These “wild plants” highlight our diminishing knowledge of indigenous flora and fauna while encouraging us to consider our growing excess of consumerism.” —Tracey Bush, 2014
“The woodland boxes, such as Bishop Wood, are partly inspired by the museum cases made to show off nineteenth-century taxidermy collections that I saw as a child. In these, a model of a natural scene is created and staged with an example of each species. I found these both strangely natural and unnatural. I also saw them in a poetic way, imagining how the creatures might live in harmony away from the human gaze. The maps serve as a pictorial background showing the landscape laid out, often with woodland represented by tiny tree symbols, and therefore a landscape can be imagined from a map. Maps are also just a human record, the land recorded and explained for our purpose in the way that species have been labeled, categorized, and laid out in a book plate. I am more interested in human recordings of nature than trying to recreate nature.” – John Dilnot, 2014
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