Considering the naturalist William Bartram

In this blog entry, Joseph Newland provides a consideration of  Travels of William Bartram Reconsidered by Mark Dion

William Bartram is the artist’s naturalist. A famous traveler, he lived in a house hand-built by his father, John Bartram, botanist to King George III, in what is now West Philadelphia. Bartram’s Garden is one of the treasures, less secret all the time, of the Delaware Valley and its many gardens.

Why the naturalist’s artist? Well, Bartram’s own drawings are powerful and insightfully rendered. And his writings, called The Travels for short, are revered throughout the world and especially the US Southeast, where aficionados follow historical markers on Bartram Trails. William Bartram’s prose is so vivid that his words are even rendered by artists: last winter at a manatee haven at Blue Springs State Park near Orlando, in the kiosk at the springhead I saw an artist’s rendering of the site “as described by William Bartram,” re-envisioning the place in the 1790s: words into pictures.

Mark Dion is the naturalist’s artist. Fascinated by natural history and collecting, he makes art that he often combines with installations of specimens in such august institutions as London’s Natural History Museum. Dion+Bartram is a natural, and recently Dion retraced some of The Travels and drew, painted, wrote, and collected, much as William Bartram had. Dion mailed cards, letters, and packages back to Bartram’s Garden. Selections were displayed in the Bartram House, in cabinets of curiosity, among historical displays: What’s a “real specimen”? Which birds did both Dion and Bartram draw? Does an assembly of similar objects, laid out in rows in a drawer actually contribute to classifying or understanding? How many plastic alligators from flea markets and thrift stores does it take to domesticate this fabled Florida beast?

William Bartram’s Travels Reconsidered documents Mark Dion’s travels: the adventure, the hijinks, the art of it. It includes essays by curator Julie Courtney and art writer Gregory Volk, and the first history of Bartram’s Garden in fifty years, by Joel Fry. And pictures, more than 200 pictures, beautifully laid out for the curious. Words into pictures, pictures into words.

Joseph Newland is an art writer, editor, and frequent visitor to Bartram’s Garden.


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