Beauty in scientific illustration:
the paintings of arthur harry church

Some of Britain’s most remarkable works of botanical illustration were created by Arthur Harry Church (1865-1937), a reclusive Oxford botanist who was a prolific writer and a talented and entertaining lecturer. Church’s scientific accomplishments were well known during his lifetime, but his unique artistic achievements have only recently gained wide exposure.

Church was a competent artist from an early age, and he later used those skills to illustrate his botanical writings and lectures. The drawings he produced for his lectures on floral morphology and reproductive mechanism were the beginnings of his best known work, Types of floral mechanism, a selection of diagrams and descriptions of common flowers arranged as an introduction to the systematic study of angiosperms. Church’s plan was to illustrate and describe 100 types of floral structures occurring in British gardens and to arrange them by blooming season, with the first volume presenting 12 types of spring flowers. The completed work contains 39 color plates of vertical sections of the flowers and numerous line drawings and floral diagrams (see The Desert Breeze, January 2016). This volume, published in 1908, was well-received but its sales were disappointing.

Planning to complete his project eventually, Church continued working on the illustrations until 1915. It was then that his wife died of food poisoning, and within a few months his youngest daughter succumbed to tuberculosis. This terrible and sudden loss, coupled with the deaths of so many of his students and colleagues in the Great War, caused Church, in the words of a close friend, to “hover on the brink of insanity”. Gradually he recovered and began a period of intense productivity in his writings. Yet despite the completion of the second volume of Types of floral mechanism and of all the artwork for a third volume, his publishers declined further involvement with a project of such scale.

After Church’s death, most of his papers, including 773 of his flower paintings, eventually made their way to London’s Natural History Museum. In 2000, the Museum produced a biography of Church by British botanist and author David Mabberley, the first such work to include these amazing works of art. Arthur Harry Church: The Anatomy of Flowers contains a wealth of information about Church’s life and writings and 57 exquisite color plates, most of which were previously unpublished.

Rarely does an artist reach Church’s level of skill in portraying the detail and beauty of a sectioned flower. He was known among his students for his mastery of the sharp razor, and for botanical illustrators, these works are an inspiration and challenge to improve one’s dissecting abilities.

Original copies of Types of floral mechanism are still available from rare book dealers. It can be also be downloaded from the Internet Archive , but sadly the colored plates are missing. Mabberley’s superb book is out of print but is available from used book dealers.

Shown here are two works depicting Cydonia japonica, the Japanese quince. Church’s striking watercolor is paired with a pen and ink illustration of the same flower that includes a floral diagram and vertical sections of the flower, fruit, and seed. Four additional paintings from Types of floral mechanism can be seen here to illustrate the unique beauty and bold style of Church’s works. — Cindy Hartwell


This appeared in the February 2016 issue of The Desert Breeze, the monthly newsletter of the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society.