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How one of the world’s best botanical artists painted by numbers 3

a drawing of a green-leaved plant with red tubular leaves

Punica granatum (MS. Sherard 242/121) Copyright Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

Oxford University and Bodleian Libraries are trying to decode the painting by numbers method used by one of the world’s most gifted botanical illustrators, Ferdinand Bauer

You may have never heard of Ferdinand Bauer (1760-1826), but the celebrated Austrian botanical artist was responsible for some of our finest botanical and zoological paintings and his illustrations illuminated one of the most famous and expensive book botanical books in the world.

Flora Graeca (1806-40) took 54 years to produce and only 25 copies were first printed, but it has come to be a seminal work of botanical illustration and an essential account of the plants of Greece and the eastern Mediterranean.

Between March 1786 and December 1787, with Oxford Professor John Sibthorp (1758 – 1796), Bauer travelled across Greece and Turkey in search of its medicinal flora and fauna, with the search soon widening to become a thorough scientific study; many of the plants Bauer pictured and Sibthorp described have become favourites in the English garden.

But what’s most remarkable is the method Bauer used to create his vibrant and scientifically accurate masterpieces.

a watercolour of an iris with purple and yellow tinged flowers

A hand coloured, printed version of Irish Germanicus by James Sowerby, which was used in the Flora Graeca. Bodleian Libraries. © Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, 2016.

a waterclour sketch of a plant with orange and pink flowers

Ferdinand Bauer, Cotyledon parviflora (MS. Sherard 242/132) Bodleian Libraries. © Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, 2016.

A sketch of a strangely shaped root with green leaves next to it

Atropa Mandragora. Copyright Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

As the pair travelled round the Mediterranean collecting, writing, drying and sketching, the gifted young artist developed a system of colour coding – effectively a painting by numbers method. He then spent six years (1788-1794) in Oxford producing watercolours from his sketches.

The Bodleian Libraries Heritage Science team are currently working to unravel this mysterious but highly effective system.

The numerical notes on Bauer’s botanical sketches indicate that he assigned different colours different numbers and marked these numbers on his sketches, so when he later turned these into more detailed watercolours he would know which colour to use where.

researchers are still trying to understand exactly how this worked… or if he simply had an astonishing colour memory

This enabled him to replicate his sketches of flora and fauna to an amazing degree of accuracy, but researchers are still trying to understand exactly how this worked in practise, and if he used a colour chart that has since been lost, or if he simply had an astonishing colour memory.

Some of Bauer’s artworks can be seen in the exhibition which features some of the works featured here – including a selection of his beautiful watercolours and field sketches, spectacular paintings of fish, ink drawings of Athens and Constantinople, as well as examples of colour pigments and a reconstruction of a colour chart he may have used.

a sketch of a mountain seen in the distance

View of Mt. Actna in the Isle of Scily. Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

a print of sketch of a city on a hill

Athens. Cpyright to Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

a print of a sketch of a mountain

Mount Parnassus now called Liakoura. Copyright Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

Druce Curator of Oxford University Herbaria, Dr Stephen Harris, who co-curated the display with Dr Richard Mulholland, Leverhulme Trust Research Fellow at the Bodleian, describes Bauer’s paintings as “among the world’s finest natural history illustrations”.

“They are astonishingly accurate,” he adds, “especially when you consider that in some cases he only saw the living plant or animal once and then painted it up to six years later.”

“It’s estimated that Bauer probably made one painting every 1½ days during his time in Oxford, so he was incredibly efficient as well as skilled. Today we are used to snapping images on our phones, but this display really celebrates the skills of botanical illustrators, whose works had, and continue to have, powerful influences on the world’s botanists.”

Most of the original plant specimens collected by Bauer and Sibthorp are now preserved in Oxford University Herbaria, whilst Bauer’s original drawings and paintings are held at the Sherardian Library of Plant Taxonomy, part of the Bodleian Libraries.

a sketch of a turquoise and blue fish

The Bauer Dolphin. One of the few occasions when Bauer’s accuracy deserted him? Copyright Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

a sketch of a vulture

Griffon Vulture. Vultur fulvus 1. Copyright Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

a sketch of a fish with its mouth wide open

Serranus gigas Cuv et Val tom 2 page 270 British Fishes Vol. 1. p. 15. copyright to Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

The Oxford University Herbaria has digitized all its images of the plant specimens collected by Sibthorp and Bauer, available at: http://herbaria.plants.ox.ac.uk/bol/sibthorpherbarium . The University of Oxford hold four sets of the Flora Graeca, two of which are held at the Bodleian Libraries. The Bodleian has made a complete digitized version of one of its sets, along with other unpublished works by Bauer, available online at: http://www.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/science/old-content/sherardian-library/flora_graeca

Note: some of the illustrations used in this article have been drawn from the Oxford University online digitised collection and differ from the ones exhibited in the display.

Painting by numbers runs at the Weston Library, Bodleian Libraries, Oxford from April 29 – July 9 2017. Admission free.


Bodleian Library

Oxford, Oxfordshire

The Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford is the largest university library system in the United Kingdom. It includes the principal University library – the Bodleian Library – which has been a legal deposit library for 400 years, as well as 27 libraries across Oxford including major research libraries…

3 comments on “How one of the world’s best botanical artists painted by numbers

  1. Sid Griffith on

    The Bauer Dolphin. One of the few occasions when Bauer’s accuracy deserted him? What?

    Actually, not bad. This is a dolphin fish, not a bottlenose dolphin. The ones I’ve caught here in Florida have bit more yellow though.

    • Richard Mulholland on

      I can confirm that Bauer certainly knew the Dophinfish while sailing through the Greek islands! and this is indeed what he depicts here. In terms of his accuracy, the 966 paintings that were published as the Flora Graeca were vetted by the most celebrated botanists of the day, and they found almost no mistakes. Even today, the colours are accurate enough that every species is absolutely identifiable by its painting. In fact, of the 966 paintings Bauer made, only one has been identified as being not perfectly colour-correct, and even then, only very slightly…

  2. Richard Mulholland on

    There will be a series of three free lunchtime lectures at the Bodleian’s Weston library this and next week, on the art historical and scientific approaches to our research on Ferdinand Bauer’s materials and techniques and using traditional eighteenth century materials and recipes to construct a ‘painting by numbers painting’. Tickets are free, and bookable here:



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