Explorers’ Sketchbooks: The Art of Discovery and Nature, by Huw Lewis-Jones and Kari Herbert

I discovered this book shortly after its publication in 2017. My ninety-year-old mother-in-law had developed fairly advanced dementia. But her lifelong appreciation for books, cartography, history, exploration, and the art of illustration had not failed her. The fortuitous coincidence of all those elements allowed us to ramble through these pages together on multiple occasions with some semblance of former camaraderie.

Arranged alphabetically by the names of the explorers, this visually stunning book represents a wealth of information and artistry, not to mention a herculean task of compilation. As the title indicates, it represents excerpts from the sketchbooks of more than seventy explorers and documenters of the natural world. Some names are familiar—John James Audubon, Meriwether Lewis, Carl Linnaeus, David Livingstone—most much less so. Most are men; a little more than a tenth are women.

Some entries comprise detailed and elaborate maps and journal entries, like those of Abel Tasman, a Dutchman who was the first European known to have visited Tasmania, Tonga, Fiji, and New Zealand. Other explorers left behind beautiful botanical drawings and paintings, like those of Maria Sibylla Merian (1647–1717), Margaret Mee (1909–1988), Thomas Baines (1820-1875), and Marianne North (1830–1890).

Many sketches represent inspiring renderings of scenes exotic to the explorers—as well as most modern readers—but commonplace enough to those among whom the travelers sojourned. Their meticulous notes and observations, set down in text and image, remind me that beauty is always at hand for those who take the time to look for it.

Some entries ignited a lust for possession that sent me searching online for prints or books featuring the work of individual artists. In most cases, such artifacts proved elusive. For example, the only available work by Jan Brandes (1743–1808), a Dutch scholar and minister who lived and traveled in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and South Africa, boasts prices ranging from $154 (plus $30 shipping) to $960.

Many of those represented are notable not only for their artistic skill but for their courage and perseverance in the face of extreme hardship and deprivation. Alexandrine Tinne (1835–1869) captured crumbling architecture as well as scenes from everyday life in graceful watercolors. She numbers among those included in the book who lost their lives in the course of their explorations. Doubtless many would have said, as Tinne did, “If anything were to happen to me during my travels, if I would be killed, which is a reasonable possibility … you will not lament me.”

Other highlights:

  • John White’s (ca. 1540s–1593) detailed drawings of 16th-century Native Americans and striking map of the East Coast. On his second trip to North America he returned to the tragically abandoned colony of Roanoke, where he had left his daughter and granddaughter.
  • Olivia Tonge (1858–1949), who, beginning at age fifty, spent three years traveling India and modern-day Pakistan and produced striking paintings of wildlife and cultural artifacts

  • Watercolorist Adela Breton (1849–1923), who likewise began her archaeological documentation of Central American excavations at age fifty

  • Thomas Baines’ (1820–1875) mangrove trees at low water in Zambezi, near the mouth of the Kongone River in Africa

  • A lifelike painting of the inside of his “African wagon” (home and mobile laboratory) by William Burchell (1781–1863)

  • Henry Walter Bates’s (1825–1892) intricate, life-size watercolors of butterflies in the Amazon

  • The stunning bird paintings of American ornithologist James Audubon (1785–1851)

  • Cartographic wonders by Captain James Cook (1728–1779), incredible for their detail and accuracy

  • Astonishingly detailed watercolors of Nepalese temples by British army surgeon Henry Oldfield (1822–1871)

  • The far flung travels of British naval surgeon John Linton Palmer (1824–1903)

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