William Bartram as a Natural History Artist

By Joel Fry

Originally appeared in The Botanical Artist (2012)


To See the Moveing Pensil; display a Sort of paper Creation, which may Endure for Ages”: William Bartram as a Natural History Artist.

Peter Collinson wrote this description of William Bartram’s art July 28, 1767, in a very important letter, thanking

William for a large set of drawings from Florida “inclosed in thy Good Fathers Journal.” Collinson had long been the chief London correspondent, business agent, and family friend of William’s father, John Bartram.  William Bartram had recently returned to Philadelphia from a failed attempt as a rice planter on the St. Johns River in Florida, and was to say the least uncertain about his future career. Bartram returned to art and botanic illustration, both as his primary desire and as a potential source of funding for further botanic exploration.

Ultimately William Bartram was successful in this plan, and went on to a long career as a botanist, traveler, writer, and artist extending over 50 years.

In 1767, however, at the time of this letter, William Bartram’s future was hardly clear, and if his purpose was a great success as a natural history artist, it was an almost impossible goal in colonial North America. There was little patronage and no academic system to support either scientists or artists in the colonies. If Bartram wanted to be a financially successful artist, he probably should have taken the first ship to London. It seems Collinson considered that as he wrote, “to come over on Speculation & uncertainty will never Do.

”Collinson was quite taken with both the skill of the drawings, and the new and curious plants and animals they represented. But he regretted to “See so much Skill Lavished away on Such Vile paper” and reported he was “prepareing to Secure them by fixing them on the best paper that So many Delicate Touches & the many Labour’d Strokes, may not be exposed to Accidents”

As a Quaker, Collinson rarely spent much time in aesthetic description in his many letters to John Bartram (even after John Bartram was disowned by the Quakers in 1758).  

Early radical Quakers frowned on almost all artistic and intellectual leanings as human vanity, although the study of medicine and the natural world were ultimately considered acceptable and encouraged. “To follow after gardening” was one of the few “innocent Divertisements” permitted to early Friends.  In 1770 John Bartram wrote to his friend Benjamin Franklin, “I am no picture Enthusiast” as a way of diffusing the fact that he was collecting and displaying engraved portraits of his scientific friends on the walls of his new study. 

So it is intriguing that Collinson devoted a full paragraph of this 1767 letter to William Bartram to the glory, pleasure, and permanence of art, “Yett as Wee all have our Diversions and Amusements, perhaps there is not any One in Which the Artist Exhibits Superior Talents than in Drawing & painting which must highly Gratifie an Ingenious Mind–When Art is arrived to Such perfection to Coppy Close after Nature, who can describe the pleasure, but them that feel it, to See the Moveing Pensil; display a Sort of paper Creation, which may Endure for Ages & transferr a name with Applause to Posterity.” The word “pensil” here meant brush in the 18th c., not the modern concept of a graphite pencil. 

William Bartram had a well-documented career as a natural history artist spanning 50 years, from 1753-1803, and he may have still produced limited work later, during the last 20 years of his life. 

The younger Bartram is best known today as the author of The Travels of William Bartram first published in Philadelphia in 1791, with many European editions to follow. Travels documented Bartram’s long exploration of the North American South, from 1773-1776. The book is considered a landmark in nature writing, both in the US and abroad, and had significant influence on young Romantic writers in Europe, and in later nature writings in America. Coleridge, Wordsworth, Chateaubriand, Jefferson, Emerson, and Thoreau all read and profited from William Bartram’s Travels

The book remains widely read today, perhaps more widely than at any time. William Bartram was a unique figure in 18th c. America, as a significant artist, author, and natural scientist.  His illustrations played an important part in transmitting the Bartram family plant knowledge to the world.  Only recently has a complete list of known examples of William Bartram’s art been compiled. 

  • As background research for the recently published collection of William Bartram’s letters, Tom Hallock and I put together a “Preliminary List of Illustrations by William Bartram”–both original drawings and published engravings based on Bartram’s drawings. This was included as “Appendix B” in William Bartram, The Search for Nature’s Design published by the University of Georgia Press in 2010.
  • Collections of William Bartram’s Art: Earl of Derby’s Library, Knowsley, UK—30 drawings, dating around 1753 - 1767. Mostly mounted in a folio volume once owned by Peter Collinson.
  • Natural History Museum, London—62 drawings, dating around 1767-1788. Once owned by Dr. John Fothergill, the collection passed to Sir Joseph Banks and then the British Museum.
  • American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, Benjamin Smith Barton Papers—70 drawings, dating around 1784-1803.
  • There are also other small collections, often consisting of a single drawing by Bartram at the Gutman Library, Harvard University; Historical Society of Pennsylvania; University of Pennsylvania; Library of Congress; Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris; and Bartram’s Garden.
  • A number of William Bartram’s drawings were engraved for publication in his lifetime. At least 58 engravings are known and there were likely a few more. These include illustrations in Bartram’s Travels; illustrations for the Linnean classes in the text book Elements of Botany, published by his friend B. S. Barton in 1803; and drawings of medicinal plants for a number of medical dissertations from the University of Pennsylvania, ca. 1795-1803.

In addition, many drawings are described and listed in Bartram letters that cannot now be located. The letter from Peter Collinson to William Bartram in July 1767, quoted above, ends with a long numbered list of notes providing details about 13 William Bartram drawings from Florida that are now missing.  Over 200 original drawings by William Bartram are now known, and 58 published engravings based on his drawings. At least 50 drawings are described or listed in letters and are now missing.  To find out more about extant collections, contact Joel Fry, Curator, Bartram’s Garden, jfry@bartramsgarden.org

Suggestions for Further Reading:

Joseph Ewan, ed., William Bartram Botanical and Zoological Drawings, 1756-1788. American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, 1968.

Judith Magee, The Art and Science of William Bartram. The Pennsylvania State University Press, UniversityPark, PA, in association with the Natural History Museum, London, 2007.

Thomas Hallock and Nancy E. Hoffmann, eds., William Bartram, The Search for Nature’s Design: Selected Art, Letters, and Unpublished Writings. University of Georgia Press, Athens, GA, 2010.

Amy R. Weinstein Meyers, ed., Knowing Nature: Art and Science in Philadelphia, 1740-1840 with the assistance of Lisa L. Ford. Yale University Press, New Haven, 2011.

  • Bignonia bracteata, engraving ca. 1786. © Natural History Museum, London
  • Right: Hydrangea quercifolia, oak-leaf hydrange William Bartram, c 1756-58, ©Natural History Museum, London
  • Flycatcher and Elliotia, William Bartram, c 1756-58, ©Natural History Museum London
  • Asimina obovata, William Bartram, ©Natural History Museum, London