Brilliant at drawing, but not so much at math? Join the club. Fortunately the task of expanding our understanding of the natural world doesn’t rest upon my shoulders. Unmatched among these gifted naturalists, however, was German professor Ernst Haeckel, whose pioneering work cataloguing newfound species offered rich detail and a luxurious use of color and tone to a discipline previously given to monochromatic simplicity. Haeckel’s volumes of unique specimens, imaginatively rendered to appeal to a lay, as well as scientific audience, enabled the public to view far-flung corners of the natural world they would otherwise never experience.
Since Haeckel’s heyday, botanical illustration has fallen out of favor somewhat, supplanted by photographic imagery and Attenborough-fronted TV shows. But Botanicum, a new project from illustrator Katie Scott, who has built her career on illustrating the natural world, skips back in time to the era of Haeckel, to continue his legacy of careful observation and reinterpretation of nature. The illustrated compendium of flora was produced by Scott in collaboration with Kathy Willis and London’s Kew Gardens. It’s the third in a series of picture books that exhaustively detail the natural world: flora in Botanicum, fauna in Animalium, and the evolution of both in Story of Life.
Of all three, the process of making Botanicum has been the most time consuming. Working with Kew directly meant the curation of plant selections was closely considered, with the division of species arranged according to phylogeny (the evolutionary categorization of an organism, of course). Also more complex? Making plants accessible to a younger audience.
“They are very consuming,” says Scott of the books. “This one took about six months of solid drawing, but maybe a year in total including planning and editing. It’s worth it, though, to have all that work compiled into one thing. In some ways I feel like I was just sent to botanical illustration school for six months. I’m so much better at illustrating plants now.”
To give Scott credit where it’s due, she has always been a technically brilliant illustrator, and her longterm fascination with organic forms defines her output: “I started pursuing that direction as a teenager,” she says. “I think it was only ever the images in textbooks that I enjoyed about science at school, so there was little chance of me engaging with it academically in any serious way. But the images struck a chord, and still do to this day.”
“It’s a great feeling when you find something that never ceases to inspire you. Show me a cross section of skin and hair follicles and I get the same excitement as I did in my teens.”
Her excitement about Botanicum also comes from working with Kew, an organization for whom she has always held affection. “I still can’t believe I’ve made a book with them. I’ve loved Kew for so long, and when I first graduated from university I plotted how I could get their attention. My plans mostly involved them selling my prints in their shop—I never dreamt of working so closely with the science department and having the access to the facility like I did.”
Given the nature of the book, one might expect Scott to have a strict environmental agenda, but she makes clear she has no intention of enforcing anything of the sort on Botanicum. “My work doesn’t come with an angle of conservation or underlying messages of protecting nature. It’s not telling you directly you must care, it just celebrates and shines light of the natural world, and I hope that encouragement leads other people into finding their own interest in nature.”