By Elizabeth Caroscio
This illustration by the celebrated English botanical artist George Brookshaw is from a very special rare book in the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Library. Bound into one book, it consists of three volumes: Groups of Flowers, Drawn and Accurately Coloured after Nature; Groups of Fruit, Accurately Drawn and Coloured after Nature; and Six Birds, Accurately Drawn and Coloured after Nature (1819). This beautiful hand colored book explores the ways in which artists should correctly apply color to nature drawings. When looking more into George Brookshaw’s life, we see that it was just as colorful as the plants and birds that he painted.
George Brookshaw (1751-1823) was born in Birmingham and started his profession as a maker of painted furniture. He had a very successful career and made furniture that is now collected by museums. Despite his success he mysteriously disappeared in the mid-1790s for about a decade. He reemerged and began publishing books on botanical illustration, the most famous being the Pomona Britannica (1804). Although it may seem like a complete career change, in reality it was not a large break from his furniture painting. As a furniture painter, he was renowned for incorporating flowers into the decoration of furniture pieces.
So, why did this eminent and successful furniture painter disappear and reemerge as an author of instructional books? Aside from being an expert on color, his personal life was also very colorful. He was married to Sobieski Grice, but for unknown reasons, they became estranged. Many scholars believe that Sobieski’s wealthy father was supplying the capital to keep Brookshaw’s furniture business successful. Whatever divide occurred in their marriage was dramatic enough to shut down Brookshaw’s business and drive him underground to find a new career under a different name.
Regardless of Brookshaw’s mysterious personal life, he was very successful in both of his artistic endeavors. His botanical books come alive both in the hand colored illustrations and the text that discusses how to make nature painting as authentic as possible.
Elizabeth Caroscio is a candidate in the M.A. History of Design and Curatorial Studies program offered jointly by the Parsons School of Design and the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. She is a Fellow in the Registrar Department of the Museum.
Wood, Lucy. “George Brookshaw: The Case of the Vanishing Cabinet-Maker.” Apollo, May 1, 1991.