Empson, Charles

Charles Empson (1794-1861)
30 Original drawings for his Narratives of South America
c. 1832
Original watercolors on paper
Paper size: 15 1/2” x 10 1/4”
Framed size: 26 1/2” x 20 1/2”

Only recently discovered, Charles Empson’s original drawings of the exotic plants of South America introduce an artist of superb technique and achievement previously known only through the narratives of his travel in South America.

Pursuing his fascination with the South American continent, Empson left England in 1830 to fulfill his “finely-cherished wish” to see for himself the curiosities and beauties of South America. His peregrinations took him from Cienega on the northern coast of Colombia through the central and eastern cordilleras of the Andes to Honda in the south, via the river Magdalena, and east into Venezuela. His recollections of the trip are preserved in his Narratives of South America, published in London in 1836. This volume also contains several engravings made from Empson’s notes and sketches and an appendix in which Epson listed many of the plants that excited his interest. Some of these are preserved in this sketchbook. Almost the entire collection of notes and sketches Empson made while in South America was destroyed in a shipwreck, depriving Empson of most of the specimens and data he collected under the title Tropical, Chiefly
South American Plants. This strikingly beautiful series of original watercolors are valuable, therefore, for both their artistic merit and their historical importance.

Unusual for the quality of the drawing and their pristine state of preservation, Empson’s plants and flowers seem to glisten under the touch of the tropical sun. Unlike the botanical drawings of most of his contemporaries, Empson’s sketches are not at all stylized. His Morning Glories entwine a dry twig; the tendrils of the Passion Flower reach out to find something to clutch. Like the great French botanical artist Redoute, Empson captures the play of light across shiny leaves, the color changes from a crease of a turning in a leaf. Technically and aesthetically masterful, these watercolors by Charles Empson must be ranked among the most important nineteenth century botanical drawings ever discovered.


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