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A Brief History of Mycological Illustration

 

In a paper read before the Botanical Society of Washington, D.C. in December 1921, mycologist L. C. C. Krieger pointed out that illustrations are essential for the correct identification of fleshy fungi. He noted that the best illustrations accurately portray the organism's size, shape, color, and other physical characteristics.

Unfortunately, early naturalists faced many obstacles in their attempts to document the fungi they observed. They often lacked fresh specimens, had use of only primitive printing techniques, and in some cases, suffered from overactive imaginations!

The earliest example of a printed fungus appears in the work, Ortus Sanitatis (1491) and was created using the technique of wood block printing. The process begins by drawing or tracing the subject onto the surface of a block of wood, and then the lines or areas that are to be left white or unprinted are cut away with a knife or gouge. Ink is rolled over the wood block design and the block is pressed onto the paper to complete the printing process. The resulting black and white image is often quite striking, but lacks the detail to identify species. Nevertheless, the process was in general use throughout the 15th and 16th centuries.

Early naturalists were not only hampered by their inability to produce precise colored images of fungi; they also had to measure the fanciful notions promulgated by contemporary herbalists. One of the most amusing of these is the work of Dr. Georgius Seger (plate 1). In his work, Anthropomorphus, Seger illustrates a geaster, or star fungi, bursting open to free the tiny men and women who seem to be trapped inside. While the image does hold a certain charm, it does nothing to advance the serious study of mycology.

The work of illustrators was greatly enhanced by the introduction of steel and copperplate engraving in the 17th century. This method involves cutting lines into the copper to create what is known as a burr. The carved lines hold the ink, rather than the raised surfaces in wood black printing, to create a more refined image. Shading is be added by crosshatching the metal to achieve a greater sense of form and depth. The finished plate is inked and pressed against the paper, and then run through two rollers to produce a clean, sharp image. Still, these images were of limited use unless colored by hand.

By the mid 18th century a method was devised to add color to the engraved plate. Johann Wilhelm Weinmann (1683-1741), was the first mycologist use this method in his Phytanthoza Iconographia (1737-1745). Unfortunately, his illustrations lacked both accuracy and clarity, and proved that another method for color printing was needed.

The quality of mycological illustration did improve in the late 1700's because naturalists employed artists to hand color plates. These illustrations were generally more accurate and identifiable, but the practice was costly, time consuming, and often lacked consistency. The colorists often painted the plates differently. In some cases the differences were subtle, but there were many examples of the same mushroom portrayed in totally different colors.

Jacob Christian Schaeffer (1718-1790) was one of the earliest mycologists to use this technique in his work Fungorum qui in Bavaria et Palatinatu circa Ratisbonam nascuntur icones. Notice that the plates in this exhibit are each colored slightly differently.

Printing was revolutionized in the 1800's with the birth of lithographic printing. The process of lithography was actually invented in 1798 by Bavarian actor Alois Senfelder, but he kept it a secret until about 1818. Senfelder's use of his invention was so poor that lithography did not catch on until the mid-1800s.

The lithographic process is much different from the earlier methods of printing. Colored inks are applied to a grease-treated image on a flat printing surface. Blank areas that hold moisture repel the lithographic ink. The inked surface is then printed directly onto paper. Finally, mycologists had a technique that gave them necessary detail and consistent application of color. The earliest examples of mycological lithographs are from the 1860s.

All these printing tools did not necessarily ensure quality. Look to Max Britzelmayr's Hymenomyceten aus Sudbayern (Plate 2) published in 1895. C.G. Lloyd pronounced it the "poorest excuse for an illustrated work on fungi" that he had ever seen. Many works were published during the age of lithography, some superlative but others very rudimentary.

The dawn of the 20th century brought a host of new printing processes. Collotype, heliotype, and half-tone were just a few, but none had the impact on the nature of scientific illustration as lithography - until the introduction of photography.

Colored photographs provided scientists with a true view of their specimens. Now scientists were able to combine photographs with illustrations to provide other mycologists with the most accurate and detailed view.

 

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Last updated August 2011
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