Botanical Art at the Real Jardin Botánico de Madrid

By Mervi Hjelmroos-Koski 

Originally appeared in The Botanical Artist – Volume 16, Issue 3


Founded in 1755 by King Ferdinand VI, the Royal Botanical Garden in Madrid (Real Jardin Botánico de Madrid, CSIC) has been the mirror of Madrid society and the social and cultural life of the Spanish nation as a whole for more than 250 years. The main garden is designed in a quite traditional European system with three main terraces: collections of medicinal, aromatic and endemic plants; a taxonomic section and a romantic section with a collection of trees and shrubs. A large number of architectural structures including fountains, sculptures and temporary art exhibits. It was declared the Artistic Garden in 1942. Today it is experiencing a delayed renaissance after completed restoration subsequent to the Spanish Peninsular War and Civil Wars in the beginning of 19th and 20th century. 

Through the centuries this garden has preserved its foundation mission of botanical research and education. Its vast archives are one of the most important in the field and serve extraordinarily well the history of science, art and culture. In the mid 18th century the Spanish Consul of Sweden invited Carolus Linneaus to direct the garden, demonstrating the strong scientific goals of this garden. Linnaeus rejected the invitation as he didn’t want to travel! 

This summer I had the pleasure to spend two days in the library of the Royal Botanic Gardens and see some of the wealth of images from the scientific expeditions and special collections holdings. It is absolutely unbelievable to be able to hold and study the Systema Colorum (Systema Colorum tabulare atque comparativum pro expeditione in itinere cum hispanis navibus circa Globum Terraqueum annis 1789-1793), Ferdinand Bauer’s original 140-color chart, which was purchased and completed by Thaddäus Haenke. Bauer wanted to establish a system of colors for the use of painters and designers working on scientific illustrations. In addition to the ‘typical’ garden records kept since 1777, the archives include: 

  • Per Löfling’s expedition to Venezuela and Guiana in South America 1754-1761 (115 botanical subjects, 81 zoological and some maps and ethnographical drawings) 
  • Jose Celestio Mutis Expedition and documentation of the New Kingdom of Granada, 1783-1816 (close to 4000 documents; 6608 botanical drawings, prints and the complete herbarium from the expedition) 
  • Hipolito Ruiz and Jose Pavon’s expedition to Peru and Chile, 1777-1788 (2230 botanical drawings of which only 1/3 were etched on copper plates, the copper plates are in the collections too) 
  • Martin Sesse and Jose Mariano Mocino’s expedition to New Spain, 1787-1803 (Mexico, Guatemala and Cuba; 119 drawings) 
  • Malaspina and Bustamente Royal maritime expedition to Pacific Ocean, 1789-1794  (465 manuscripts and 264 drawings). 
  • T. Haenke collection contains 402 documents including paintings and descriptions  Mopox expedition to Cuba, 1796-1802 (332 drawings) 
  • Juan Isern expedition to the Pacific, 1862-1866 
  • Juan de Cellular’s scientific commission to Philippines and China 1785-1795 (88 drawings from Philippines and 980 from Canto) 
  • F.J. Balmis’ collection of Chinese drawings which he brought back from Canton in the late 18th – early 19th century. These are over 200 large folio sheets of Chinese plants painted by Chinese painters. 
  • The van Berkhey collection of vegetable kingdom: collection of Dutch botanical illustrations 1646 in total. This collection contains the oldest drawings conserved in the garden. 

The collection is massive and inspiring, and includes thousands of artistic and scientific drawings, including not only graphic material, pencil, sepia and ink drawings and color plates in tempera, looking as if they were painted yesterday. Also included are copper plates, engravings and prints. It can be overwhelming and as I attempted to take it all in, I realized that much more time should be reserved for this type of a visit! The archive staff is absolutely wonderful, fluent in English and ready to help you with your requests and questions. The majority of the holdings are digitized and available through the internet (website is, and is still under extensive construction). The Garden also has an extensive publishing program, and an effort is under way to get these image collections out into the world to become a part of public knowledge. 

  • Ferdinand Bauer’s original 140-color chart, purchased and completed by Thaddäus Haenke, c 1753.
  • Watercolor image from Granada created during the Jose Celestio Mutis Expedition, c. 1783-1816