James Sowerby (1757-1822) was an outstanding artist and natural historian, renowned for his discoveries and prodigious output of beautiful, scientific books of plants, fungi, animals, fossils and minerals, all at a key historical time; the age of Enlightenment in Great Britain. He was active in the period between the death of Linnaeus (the father of modern taxonomy) and the rise of Charles Darwin – a time of burgeoning interest about the natural world as well as of much social change. Sowerby became one of, if not the, most knowledgeable natural historians of his generation as well as one of the best botanical artists (alongside Redouté and Ehret). His work has had a lasting legacy both through its artistic merit and its scientific value.
James Sowerby rose from humble beginnings to become an outstanding and prolific natural historian of his time. His colourful but challenging life reveals an intriguing world of opportunity, prejudice, cooperation and discovery. Through his remarkable artistic skills and enthusiasm for all natural history he became indispensable to the principal network of scientists and collectors. Importantly, Sowerby’s exquisite drawings and engravings are both beautiful and taxonomically accurate.
He dramatically improved our understanding of plants, as well as of fungi, minerals, meteorites, fossils and animals. New species were described by him, experiments about light and colour were made, learned societies were supported, his museum was established, and lords and ladies were given instruction on drawing. No one else has matched his achievement. He was a patriarch of a long line of natural historians and he left a sustained and invaluable legacy much used and appreciated to the present day.
Beautifully illustrated with artwork and letter and manuscript extracts, this first full biography of Sowerby is a fascinating artistic and historical account, which extends beyond that of one key player.