Special Collections: Natural History

Frederick Polydore Nodder (1799) Thirty-Eight Plates, with Explanations, Intended to Illustrate Linnaeus’s System of Vegetables (GSA Library, Special Collections)

The Natural History collection features several volumes on the natural world, many with beautiful hand-coloured plates of flora and fauna both British and exotic. The collection reflects some of the cultural preoccupations of the Victorian and Edwardian years, such as Pteridomania (or ‘Fern-Fever’) in which the fern plant became ubiquitous in pottery, glass, metal, textiles, and sculpture.

Studying Nature

Particularly influential within the Glasgow context were the teachings of James Rennie (who had graduated with an MA from the University of Glasgow before becoming Professor of natural history and zoology at King’s College, London from 1830 to 1834) and John Hutton Balfour (who become Professor of botany at the University of Glasgow in 1841, then Regius Keeper of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh from 1845). Both are featured in our collection.

Perhaps surprisingly, many artists were also experts in natural history. At the turn of the twentieth century, the artist J. J. F. X. King, who was also tutor and librarian at GSA, was an acknowledged authority on neuroptera, the class of flying insects with net-like wings. Designer Emile-Allain Seguy, whose work features prominently in the Stoddard-Templeton Collection, was knowledgeable in insect and butterfly-life and produced several volumes of beautiful pochoir patterns based upon their form.

Drawing from Nature

Drawing from life and from nature were once important parts of any art school curriculum, and materials to support these activities were purchased from very early on in GSA library’s history. ‘Art Botany’ was the term given to the study of plant forms, growth and construction for decorative purposes. From 1909 GSA had its own conservatory for the growing of plants. Students would draw from botanical specimens, examining their structure in order to systematise their elements for decoration and ornament in a process known as ‘conventionalisation’. They also studied live animals, including poultry, horses from local tram depots, and even camels, elephants and zebras which were brought from the local zoo to a special Animal Room within the Mackintosh Building. Our Arts Pedagogy Collection also contains many instructional volumes on the drawing and painting of plants and animals.

Digital Volumes

We have digitised a selection of volumes from this collection, which you can view online or download.