Franz Bauer – botanical artist

Before I start – I will be without internet access after this until tuesday 12th December. Don’t worry if I do not respond to comments until then.

I have mentioned Bauer previously as one of my scientific and artistic heroes and an influence on my own work. This Essay I wrote two years ago should give a little background:


In 1758 Franz Andreas Bauer was born into an artistic family in Feldsberg, in modern-day Austria. Two of his brothers also became artists; Joseph (1756-1831) and Ferdinand (1760-1826). Their father, Lukas Bauer, was court painter to the Count of Liechtenstein. It seems likely that, like their contemporary Redouté, they would have received their artistic training at the hands of their father had fate not intervened. Sadly Lukas Bauer passed away in 1762, when Joseph, Ferdinand and Franz were in infancy. Their mother, Therese, is thought to have given her boys some initial artistic training and encouragement but during their childhood the pivotal person in their education and artistic direction was the recently arrived physician and sub-prior at a nearby convent: Norbert Boccius. From the early 1770s Boccius became engaged in producing what became known as the ‘Codex Liechtenstein’, which comprised illustrations of around three thousand plants, both native and exotic. Well over half of these illustrations (the earlier volumes) were produced by the Bauer brothers. This must have been a very intensive apprenticeship which was to have a profound effect on the direction of the careers of Franz and Ferdinand particularly.

The boys left for Vienna in 1780, and came under the influence of the eminent botanist Baron Nikolaus von Jacquin (1727-1817). Jacquin was also a skilled illustrator and was working on his Icones Plantarum Rariorum, produced between 1781 and 1805. Stearn (1960) credits Jacquin with teaching the brothers to truly understand the subjects they were illustrating and, for a time, Jacquin employed them in illustrating his work.

The brothers went their separate ways in the late 1780s. Joseph had returned to Vienna and in 1786 Ferdinand departed with the botanist John Sibthorp and began to carve out his own remarkable path as a botanical artist. Though this essay is about Franz it is impossible to separate the two completely as they had complementary, yet totally different careers going forward. Ferdinand and Sibthorp journeyed through Europe to Greece, Cyprus and Crete and accumulated specimens and illustrations for the Flora Graeca project. Between 1787 and Sibthorp’s death in 1796, Ferdinand was in Oxford with Sibthorp, completing his illustrations. Note that Franz was also in England, at Kew, for much of this time and the two brothers no doubt renewed their association. In 1801, Ferdinand began his greatest adventure as illustrator on the Investigator’s voyage to Australia. This ended with the return to England in 1805. In 1814 Ferdinand returned to Austria where he died in 1826.

Franz continued working with Jacquin until 1788 when he set off with Jacquin’s son Joseph on a tour of the scientific centres of Europe, which included visiting the library and herbarium of Sir Joseph Banks in London. This was another fateful event, for Banks offered Franz the position of illustrator at The Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, which Banks controlled. It is clear from Jacquin’s communications to his father that he feared losing Franz to Banks. He was right to be concerned.

By 1790 Franz had indeed taken up the position at Kew, where he worked and lived for the remaining 50 years of his life.

We have reasonable information regarding the painting techniques used by both Franz and Ferdinand Bauer. Firstly, an outline sketch on thin paper would be annotated with numbers referring to shades on colour charts prepared earlier. When the final piece was to be painted, the sketch would be placed on a light-box to enable it to be traced exactly onto the final paper. Colour charts exist as evidence, and Lack points out that comparison of sketches with the final pieces, where possible, reveals that they map onto each other with an accuracy difficult to achieve without tracing. That extremely fine brushes must then have been used to apply the watercolours with such fine detail is obvious. Both brothers developed their charts and techniques whilst under the tutelage of Boccius, and possibly the methods came from him but we have no evidence of this. It is unsurprising therefore then, as Stearn points out, that it can be difficult to attribute unsigned work to a specific Bauer brother. Their later work would be especially difficult to tell apart if it were not for supporting information. Christabel King recounts trying to reproduce the Bauer’s use of colour charts in the field and she found the process cumbersome and frustrating. Simply applying colour to a part of the sketch was more efficient than trying to hold plant material up against a chart on paper, and making shade notes. Using the colour chart in the field may have made more sense for Ferdinand Bauer, who had more time pressure due to travelling requirements and the likelihood of any cut specimens deteriorating in the hot, dry conditions of much of Australia. For Franz to continue using this method in the relative comfort of Kew, with potted specimens available, might seem odd but it must be remembered that flowering tends to be condensed into a few weeks, and species will overlap in flower. If Franz was painting one species of terrestrial Orchid in April, there might be numerous other species in flower at the same time and would have to wait until a future year unless Franz could make quick sketches and colour notes he could return to in quieter periods.

Franz has historically been in the shadow of his brother Ferdinand because of his less adventurous life and the lack of high profile publication of his work, yet a number of recent authors have given him the recognition he clearly deserves. From a scientific point of view the work of Franz is especially valuable as a result of his keen exploration of the microscopic features of his subjects. During his lifetime Franz did contribute to a number of limited-circulation publications but the majority of his work was simply archived in private collections such as that of his employer, Banks, eventually to find their way to safekeeping in national institutions such as the Natural History Museum in London.

Early in his employment at Kew, Franz provided illustrations for ‘Delineations of exotic plants cultivated in the Royal Garden at Kew. Drawn and coloured and the botanical characters displayed according to the Linnaean system by Francis Bauer, botanick painter to His Majesty’s’. The contents are all pictures of Erica species from South Africa introduced by the Scottish plant collector Francis Masson, also an employee of Banks. This work started in 1796 or 1797, no coincidence that Masson had recently returned from his last expedition to the Cape and was resident at Kew for a few years whilst working on his collections. Some writers have expressed surprise that the genus Erica featured exclusively. Perhaps overlooked is that at the time there was a fashion among adventurous (and wealthy) gardeners for growing the ‘Cape Heaths’. Several hundred of these are known to have been in cultivation in England around this time, compared to probably less than twenty now. It may well be that the publication attempted to capitalise on this enthusiasm but sadly it failed to work and fizzled out after three volumes with a much-reduced print run for the  final volume. The botanist/artist Henry Andrews published further work on the Cape heaths a few years later and in 1812 he honoured Franz’s earlier contributions by naming Erica bauera after him.


Many orchids, whose pollination physiology was of much interest to him, were drawn and painted by Franz. Some of this work was published in four volumes from 1830 as ‘Illustrations of orchidaceous plants; by Francis Bauer, Esq. F.R.S.;L.S. & H.S.’ , with text by orchid expert John Lindley, but much also remained unpublished in the archives until more were brought together in a book by Stewart & Stearn in 1993. Examining the originals of some of these is quite illuminating, particularly if one chooses species familiar to the examiner, either from the wild or from cultivation. The level of detail is astonishing, in some cases, for example Epipactis palustris dated October 1799 where even a seed is dissected – and orchid seed is dust-like to the naked eye. Some earlier pictures such as Orchis mascula dated 1794 are less detailed and this may represent evolution in both microscope technology and in Franz’s technique.  Technique for painting seems to have been adapted to the needs of the subject. In most cases Franz leaves white paper to show through where white is needed – for instance Habenaria bifolia is a superb example; incidentally the dissections on this page are superb also. Ophrys muscifera, however, utilises white paint on top of grey where some highlights are needed.

Examining the painting of the South African cormous plant Ferraria crispa (undated), is interesting for one who is familiar with the genus Ferraria. At full size it is every bit as detailed as the reduced reproduction in Lack’s biography suggests, with dissections of the flower parts and depiction of the faded flowers being astonishingly accurate. This is not the first illustration of this species and it is interesting to compare the Bauer painting with the engraving produced by Ferrari himself when the species first reached Europe in the 1660s – see Fraser & Fraser for a reproduction of this. Ferrari’s monochrome depiction allows a reasonably good identification to be made, though one might struggle to be certain to species level in the light of similar species discovered later. The Bauer painting has more than enough detail for an unambiguous identification of the subject.

Franz also produced many illustrations of ferns, including observations which were unique at the time – for instance showing the germination of fern spores. W. J. Hooker, who succeeded Banks in charge of Kew, published these in ‘Genera Filicium; or illustrations of the genera of ferns, from the original drawings by Francis Bauer’. Sadly Bauer had died shortly before he could see this work published.

Well known for his passion for microscopy, Franz gave a useful guide to his technique for drawing from the microscope in his essay in the appendix to ‘The Micrographia’ in 1837. He referred to this as being the ‘method he has used for over 30 years’. Interestingly, the Camera Lucida (an optical drawing aid) was patented 30 years earlier in 1807, and Lack has postulated that a prototype may have been available to Ferdinand on his voyage to Australia. Versions adapted for the microscope were available within a few years. Yet, despite this and Franz generally being quick to adopt new technology, there is no mention of his using such a device in his Micrographia essay. He describes using a grid (micrometer) on both the microscope stage and on the eyepiece and a corresponding grid on his sketching paper in order to get the scale correct. There is no reason why a Camera Lucida could not accompany this technique but as it isn’t specifically mentioned this seems unlikely given the very detailed methodological description. A glimpse of the described technique can be seen from the grid still in place on a sketch alongside his illustration of Cephalanthera on page 38 of ‘British Orchids, Francis Bauer, 1792-1817’ in the Natural History Museum.

Franz keenly followed advances in microscope technology, no less than fifteen microscopes being listed in his belongings at auction after his death. Microscopes at the time were built by hand by craftsmen instrument builders; Franz’s collection would therefore have represented a considerable financial investment. We know that he possessed microscopes built by Simon Plössl in Vienna and Charles Chevalier in Paris, both of whom were making progress in combating the chromatic and optical aberrations that plagued the microscopes at the time at higher magnifications and must have been especially frustrating to Franz, who took such care to illustrate colour and proportion so accurately. In his attempts to take advantage of the latest developments the 67 year old Franz took his last trip outside of Britain when he, accompanied by Sir Everard Home, visited Paris to see Charles Chevalier about a new microscope. Only after Franz’s death did optical technology, based on sound physical principles, offer reproducible solutions to the aberration issues; especially the work of Zeiss, Abbé and Schott in the late 1800s. Microscope makers in Franz’s time had to rely largely upon trial and error. Franz and Home were good friends but one wonders, given that Franz was being called upon by Home to produce medical illustrations for him, if the presence of Home also indicates that he was covering the financial cost of the new instrument. In ‘The Micrographia’ Bauer refers to a recently obtained ‘achromatic’ microscope, though the sale of his belongings lists three instruments with achromatic lenses; by Plössl, Chevalier and Dollond.



Franz Bauer the artist has perhaps overshadowed Franz Bauer the scientist. Granted, Bauer did not publish his observations as text in the scientific literature but that does not diminish his achievements as a scientist. His pushing the boundaries of microscopy in his work allowed him to be the first to observe and record many phenomena. For instance he observed the cell nucleus with Robert Brown long before Brown wrote about it and gave it the name we know it by. He was the first to depict the earliest stages of a human embryo, indeed his medical and zoological illustration work for the likes of Sir Everard Home is a fascinating subject in itself. The great Charles Darwin later praised Franz’s orchid illustrations when studying orchid pollination himself. Darwin was still a young man when Bauer died in 1840, and spent much of Bauer’s final decade on his Beagle voyage and making the earliest observations which led to his evolutionary theory. It is tempting to speculate what might have occurred had these two been closer contemporaries. Franz Bauer first observed the link between pollen morphology and taxonomic groups of plants and it has been said that the science of Palynology would have been advanced by decades if these observations had been published. The present day artist Rob Kesseler has produced several books of fascinating (electron) microscope images of pollen and other plant structures in collaboration with Kew scientists, perhaps a similar model would have allowed Franz Bauer a wider audience had the infrastructure existed.

In conclusion, artists and scientists are sometimes seen as radically different personalities. However, both share the same fundamental skill – that of observation. It is merely in the methods used to communicate their observations that they differ. Franz Bauer appears to have had a unique blend of scientist and artist in his personality, which allowed him not only to exceed as an artist, but also to make a very valuable contribution to the biological sciences. In contrast to his brother’s relatively adventurous life, Franz’s seems initially rather sedentary. However, Franz did much exploration and discovery with his microscopes  Looking at his work one gets the sense of great synergy, in that the scientific and artistic approaches have worked together to create a body of work far greater in value than the sum of these parts.


Bauer, Franz, 1837. Appendix to The Micrographia, Goring & Pritchard.

Blunt & Stearn, 1950. The Art of Botanical Illustration.

Fraser & Fraser, 2011. The Smallest Kingdom.

Kesseler. The work of Rob Kesseler can be seen at:

King, 1997. Notes on using a colour chart: a modern artist’s view. Curtis’s Botanical Magazine Vol 14 Issue 2 p101-102.

Lack 2002: H. W. Lack, Recording Form In early Nineteenth Century Botanical Drawing. Ferdinand Bauer’s ‘Cameras’. Curtis’s Botanical Magazine Vol 15 Issue Supplement s1 p254-274. 2002

Lack 2003: H.W.Lack, Ferdinand, Joseph und Franz Bauer: Testamente, Verlassenschaften und deren Schicksale. Ann. Naturhist .Mus. Wien 104 B, p479-551. March 2003.

W. Lack & V. Ibáñez 1997. Recording Colour In early Nineteenth Century Botanical Drawings. Sydney Parkinson, Ferdinand Bauer and Thaddäus Haenke. Curtis’s Botanical Magazine Vol 14 Issue 2 p87-100.

Lack 2008: Franz Bauer: The Painted Record of Nature. H. W. Lack. Vienna: Naturhistorisches. Museum Wien. 2008.

Nickelsen 2006: Draughtsmen, Botanists & Nature: The Construction of Eighteenth Century Botanical Illustrations.

Schumann & Kirsten, 1992. Ericas of South Africa.

Stearn 1960: Franz & Ferdinand Bauer, Masters of Botanical Illustration. Endeavour Volume XIX, Number 73, January 1960.

Stewart & Stearn, 1993. The Orchid Paintings of Franz Bauer.

Ware, G. 2010. Franz Bauer and John Smith– The Eyes and Hands of William Hooker: The Significance of their Work in Genera Filicum. Hardy Fern Foundation Quaterly.

Original works examined at Natural History Museum April 2015, by kind arrangement with the Library staff:

Ferraria crispa Undated. Finished drawings of plants by Francis Bauer 6: no 153.

Oprys apifera June 18th 1811, Epipactis palustris October 1799,  Ophrys tenthredinifera Chelsea 1807, and others bound in: British Orchids, Francis Bauer, 1792-1817.



  1. This was an incredible essay, eloquently written! You have piqued my interest. I will definitely check out all of his work especially his medical and zoological illustration. Thank you for introducing me to him. You are just as talented as he. I keep saying I will be purchasing your book someday.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Being a plant geek, I’d seen reproductions of his work before, but it never really occurred to me that he was using a very rudimentary microscope to get the incredible detail. I am so happy to learn more about him. Thank you for that and for your incredible artistry, too.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. What an incredibly pleasant essay Darren! I was looking foreward to reading it and now I want to know more about Franz Bauer😍 he was my neighbour after all, and I go all across Austria twice a month to visit my boyfriend☺️💞💛💟 thank you for sharing

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Beautiful essay! Meaningful information and well written. Hope the teacher gave you a good grade. Thank you for sharing your knowledge about Franz Bauer’s work and his life. I do get why you are so found of him. I share Lisa’s opinion: You are just as talented as he! I can’t wait to purchase one of your books some day but meanwhile I will try to get Bauer’s Orchid paintings book.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It was one of two essays that year that got 100%, thank you Dominique. I knew you would understand my fascination with him. The orchid paintings book is certainly the one I would recommend. When I got my copy I picked it up in a remainders shop for about five pounds. It now fetches rather more!

      Liked by 1 person

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