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Members' Research Report Archive

The Landscape Art of William John Burchell (1781–1863)

Maria Cristina Wolff de Carvalho, Fundação Armando Álvares Penteado, São Paulo
Paul Mellon Senior Fellow, 2011–2012

The writings, drawings, and encyclopedic collecting of British naturalist William John Burchell (1781–1863) generated what may be called a panoramic approach to studying the landscapes he intimately explored. Yet each element of his far-ranging interests became part of an indivisible whole.

Burchell first began formulating his approach during his early years as an artist in England and Wales, but it achieved sharper focus over the course of his long expeditions. During his sojourns on the island of Saint Helena (1805–1810), in South Africa (1810–1815), and in Brazil (1825–1830), and in subsequent decades in England spent systematically organizing his collections and the results of his research, Burchell came to establish a unique link between science and art. The collection, selection, and organization of flora, fauna, and ethnographic artifacts; the observation and recording of the vast range of subjects that interested him; and the artistic rendering of natural landscapes and cultural environments were fused into a comprehensive whole. By intuiting a reciprocal relationship between science and art and interspersing written observations with drawings, Burchell eventually created his own poetics, in which environments are presented with utmost concision. This is beautifully demonstrated in his only published memoirs, Travels in the Interior of Southern Africa (two volumes, 1822 and 1824).

The ultimate goal of Burchell’s voyages was to traverse unknown regions, compiling an environmental inventory and acquiring new perspectives on human nature. His aim was to reconstruct nature and culture from a vicarious standpoint, creating in drawings, paintings, and written descriptions landscapes that would conform to his own vision and values. J. M. Coetzee argues in The Picturesque, the Sublime, and the South African Landscape (1988) that the sense of strangeness Burchell encountered when confronted by the landscapes of that country triggered a tension between the reality of nature and his inexorably European poetics. But it is also true that Burchell sought an innate, science-based harmony in each microcosm, which he would then translate into art.

In November 2011 I went to Museum Africa, Johannesburg, where I came to understand how Burchell’s method developed. As a member of the British educated class, he received a broad schooling in both the arts and natural history. His initial foray into the art of draftsmanship was shaped by the culture of the picturesque, which considered landscape through rigorous values and principles of geometry and composition. This perspective was introduced to him by his teachers, James Merigot (1760–1824), author of The Amateur’s Portfolio (1815), and John Claude Nattes (1765–1822), who wrote Natte’s Practical Geometry (1805). Burchell’s first works, executed between 1797 and 1804, already reveal a taste for painstaking detail, dynamic architectural foregrounds and backgrounds, and encompassing vistas, all in keeping with the reigning romantic sensibility. At this time Burchell also undoubtedly visited the much-esteemed Panorama at Leicester Square in London, and he soon emulated this mode of presentation in numerous landscapes. He developed a technique of drawing 360-degree vistas by using an “imaginary cylinder,” perhaps with a camera lucida.

The landscapes from Burchell’s notebooks that I was able to study in South Africa included those he completed while living on Saint Helena. Depictions of the dramatic topography mesh with an underlying delicacy, emotional complexity, and visual acuity that pinpoint the exact function of each element. These drawings anticipate Burchell’s later works, such as the breathtaking image of the vast, parched mountains and valleys of the Great Karoo, in South Africa, or the exuberant landscape in Brazil, completed while he was exploring the southeastern coast between Rio de Janeiro and Santos and interior regions from São Paulo to Belém do Pará, passing through the central arid savannah. Burchell’s images and notes seem even more astonishing when recording human settlements, with their indigenous tools and materials, traditional architectural forms, urban organization, and unique ways in which daily life becomes inextricably linked with the environment.

The diverse products of his scientific research and artistic creation are now all dispersed among a number of museums and other institutions, most notably the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (herbarium and related drawings and writings); the Linnean Society of London (correspondence); Oxford University Museum and Pitt Rivers Museum (collections of animal specimens, human artifacts, drawings, maps, and writings); Museum Africa, Johannesburg (drawings and watercolors); and the Instituto Moreira Salles in Rio de Janeiro (eighteen attributed watercolors). With the understanding of Burchell’s unique method that I have gained from these archives, I plan to mine their troves further, with the ultimate goal of preparing an artistic-scientific catalogue raisonné of Burchell’s written and artistic oeuvre. Along the way, I hope to organize exhibitions and symposia and to publish introductory books for a more general readership so that his contributions will receive the attention they deserve.

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