An exhaustive catalogue of US fruit and nut variations, chronicling the tiniest deviation in shape and colour, might not seem like a riveting read. Yet for the Department of Agriculture’s Division of Pomology (the scientific study of fruit) the quest to share the joys of pomes, drupes and citrus meant employing a host of artists to create meticulous reproductions, in the form of watercolours, lithographs and line drawings. Between 1886 and 1942 the division commissioned more than 7,500 works (from illustrators that included Sir Isaac Newton’s granddaughter among their ranks) as a way of educating the nation’s growers at a time when photography was not readily accessible and the need for agricultural innovation was stark.
“The technical accuracy of these illustrations is a marvel, finding beauty even in the diseased and rotten”
Some of the most remarkable watercolour results are presented in An Illustrated Catalog of American Fruits & Nuts, published by Atelier Editions. There are exacting cross-sections that show off glossy skins and seed arrangements, as well as more creative studies that present the fruits in situ, attached to luscious clusters of leaves and branches.
The technical accuracy of these illustrations is a marvel, with the ability to find beauty even in the diseased and rotten demonstrating real mastery. Who would have thought that a blackened lemon, coated in a layer of fuzzy mould, could look so alluring?
Elsewhere, the ability to allude to shapes and sizes, even when confined to the dimensions of the catalogue, is wonderful. An engorged honey dew melon, for example, grazes the margins and is instilled with an innate heaviness. Conversely, cherry and strawberry varieties appear in clusters, as if they have just been scattered across the page. The accompanying contemporary texts give further context to the stories that surround each and every fruit, from the biblical manifestations of original sin to the relatively recent domestication of the blueberry. Who knew pomology could be this delicious?