Behold an Interactive Online Edition of Elizabeth Twining’s Illustrations of the Natural Orders of Plants (1868)

Of all the varied objects of creation there is, probably, no portion that affords so much gratification and delight to mankind as plants. —Elizabeth Twining

“Who owned nature in the eighteenth century?” asks Londa Schiebinger in Plants and Empire, a study of what the Stanford historian of science calls “colonial bioprospecting in the Atlantic World.” The question was largely decided at the time by “heroic voyaging botanists” and “biopirates” who claimed the world’s natural resources as their own. The matter was settled in the next couple centuries by merchants like Thomas Twining and his descendants, proprietors of Twinings tea. Founded as Britain’s first known tea shop in 1706, the company went on to become one of the largest purveyors of teas grown in the British colonies.

One of Twining’s descendants, Elizabeth Twining, carried on the legacy as what Schiebinger calls one of many “armchair naturalists, who coordinated and synthesized collecting from sinecures in Europe,” a role often taken on by women who could not travel the world. Twining aimed, however, not to create taxonomies of the world’s plants but those of her own country in a comparative analysis.

Her 1868 Illustrations of the Natural Orders of Plants, she wrote in her introduction, was “the first work which has thus done due honour to our British plants by connecting with others, and placing them whenever possible at the head of the Order to be illustrated.”

Twining’s revaluation of local British plants was in keeping with the reformist spirit of the age, and she herself was such a reformer. “Apart from her artistic endeavors,” writes Nicholas Rougeaux, Twining “was a notable philanthropist,” establishing almshouses and temperance halls, founding “mother’s meetings” in London, and helping to found the Bedford College for Women. She was inspired by Curtis’s The Botanical Magazine and “she practiced by making sketches from works in the Dulwich Picture Gallery, and toured famous museums thanks to her father’s patronage.”

Twining authored and illustrated several botanical books, “most notably,” Rougeux writes, “the two volume Illustrations of the Natural Orders of Plants, which included a total of 160 hand-colored lithographs, royal folio, reportedly based on observation at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew and at Lexden Park in Colchester.” Rougeux has done for her work what the designer previously did for other illustrated classics of science and math (see the related links below): digitizing the illustrations and transliterating the text into a digital format, with hyperlinks and sharing features.

Rougeux’s Illustrations of the Natural Orders of Plants offers itself as “a complete reproduction and restoration… enhanced with interactive illustrations, descriptions, and posters featuring the illustrations.” The first two volumes of the original book were published in 1849 and 1855. Rougeux’s online version of the text is based on the 1868 second edition “with re-drawn illustrations based on her originals.” (See pages from the text above and below.) Rougeux’s digitized text is thus two steps removed from Twining’s original illustrations, but we can see the care and attention she put into classifying the flora of her native country.

“Twining chose to illustrate plants using the classification system created by Augustin-Pyrame de Candolle based on multiple characteristics of plants—rather than the more widely used system by Carl Linnaeus which was focused on plants’ reproductive characteristics,” notes Rougeux, “because the De Candolle system was newer and she wanted her readers to be up to date as classification systems were evolving.”

Although biological taxonomies have changed considerably since her time, Twining’s Illustrations of the Natural Orders of Plants remains an intriguing “snapshot in time” that depicts not only the latest ideas about plant classification in the mid-19th century but also the attitudes a prominent member of the British ruling class adopted toward nature as a whole. See Rougeux’s online edition of Twining’s text here.

via Kottke

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Flair Magazine: The Short-Lived, Highly-Influential Magazine That Still Inspires Designers Today (1950)

All magazines are their editors, but Flair was more its editor than any magazine had been before — or, for that matter, than any magazine has been since. Though she came to the end of her long life in England, a country to which she had expatriated with her fourth husband, a Briton, Fleur Cowles was as American a cultural figure as they come. Born Florence Freidman in 1908, she had performed on herself an unknowable number of Gatsbyesque acts of reinvention by 1950, when she found herself in a position to launch Flair. Her taste in husbands helped, married as she then was to Gardner “Mike” Cowles Jr., publisher of Look, a popular photo journal that Fleur had helped to lift from its lowbrow origins and make respectable among that all-powerful consumer demographic, postwar American women.

The success of the reinvented Look “allowed Cowles to ask her husband for what she really wanted: the capital to start her own publication, which she called ‘a class magazine,'” writes Eye on Design’s Rachel Syme. “She was tired of spreads about the best linoleum; she wanted to do an entire issue on Paris, or hire Ernest Hemingway to write a travel essay, or commission Colette to gossip about her love affairs.”

During Flair‘s run she did all that and more, with a roster of contributors also including Salvador Dalí, Simone de Beauvoir, W. H. Auden, Gloria Swanson, Winston Churchill, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Jean Cocteau. In Flair‘s debut issue, published in February 1950, “an article on the 28-year-old Lucian Freud came liberally accompanied with reproductions of his art—the first ever to appear in America.”

So writes Vanity Fair‘s Amy Fine Collins in a profile of Clowes. “Angus Wilson and Tennessee Williams contributed short stories, Wilson’s printed on paper textured to resemble slubbed silk.” What’s more, “The Duke and Duchess of Windsor opened their home to Flair’s readers, treating them to their recondite and entertaining tips. A more futuristic approach to living was set forth in a two-page spread on Richard Kelly’s lighting design for Philip Johnson’s glass house in Connecticut.” Feature though it may have the work of an astonishingly varied group of luminaries — pulled in by Cowles’ vast and deliberately woven social net — Flair is even more respected today for each issue’s lavish, elaborate, and distinctive design.

“If a feature would be better in dimension than on flat pages, why not fold half-pages inside double-page spreads?” asks Cowles in her memoirs, quoted in Print magazine. “Why not bind it as ‘a little book’ … giving it a special focus? If a feature was better ‘translated’ on textured paper, why use shiny paper?” And “if a painting was good enough to frame, why not print it on properly heavy stock? Why not bind little accordion folders into each issue to give the feeling of something more personal to the content?” One reason is the $2.5 million (1950 dollars) that Mike Cowles estimated Flair to have cost in the year it ran before he pulled its plug.

But then, by the early 1970s even the highly profitable Look had to fold — and of the two magazines, only one has become ever more sought-after, has books published in its tribute, and still inspires designers today. To take a closer look at the magazine, see The Best of Flaira  compilation of the magazine’s best content as chosen by Fleur Cowles herself. (See a video preview of the book above.)

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

How to Draw the Buddha: Explore an Elegant Tibetan Manual from the 18th-Century

Some religions prohibit the depiction of their sacred personages. Tibetan Buddhism isn’t quite so strict, but it does ask that, if you’re going to depict the Buddha, you do it right. Hence aids like the Tibetan Book of Proportions, which provides “36 ink drawings showing precise iconometric guidelines for depicting the Buddha and Bodhisattva figures.” That description comes from the Public Domain Review, where you can behold many of those pages. Printed in the 18th century, “the book is likely to have been produced in Nepal for use in Tibet.” Now you’ll find it at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, which had made the book free to read at its digital collections.

To read it properly, of course, you’ll have to know your Newari script and Tibetan numerals. But even without them, anyone can appreciate the elegance of not just the book’s recommended proportions — all presented on a standardized and notated grid — but of the book itself as well.

By the time this volume appeared, the printing used for texts related to Tibetan Buddhism had long since shown itself to be a cut above: take the 15th-century collection of recitation texts, previously featured here on Open Culture, printed forty years before the Gutenberg Bible. Only a printing culture that had mastered this level of detail could produce a book like the Tibetan Book of Proportions, visual exactitude being its entire raison d’être.

“The concept of the ‘ideal image’ of the Buddha emerged during the Golden Age of Gupta rule, from the 4th to 6th century,” says the Public Domain Review. During that Indian empire’s dominance, the importance of such depictions extended even beyond proportions to details like “number of teeth, color of eyes, direction of hairs.” Surely when it comes to showing one who has attained nirvana — or a bodhisattva, the designation for those on their way to nirvana — one can’t be too careful. Nevertheless, artworks in the form of the Buddha (of which the Victoria and Albert Museum offer a small sampling on their web site) have taken different shapes in different times and places. No matter how well-defined the ideal, the earthly realm always finds a way to introduce some variety.

via Public Domain Review

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Animation Pioneer Lotte Reiniger Adapts Mozart’s The Magic Flute into an All-Silhouette Short Film (1935)

When Lotte Reiniger began making animation in the late 1910s, her work looked like nothing that had ever been shot on film. In fact, it also resembles nothing else achieved in the realm of cinema in the century since. Even the enormously budgeted and staffed productions of major studios have yet to replicate the stark, quavering charm of her silhouette animations. Those studios do know full well, however, what Reiniger realized long before: that no other medium can more vividly realize the visions of fairy tales. To believe that, one needs only watch her 1922 Cinderella or 1955 Hansel and Gretel, previously featured here on Open Culture.

It was between those productions that Reiniger made the work for which she’s now best remembered: the 1926 One Thousand and One Nights pastiche The Adventures of Prince Achmed, the very first feature in animation history. Nine years later, she turned to source material closer at hand, culturally speaking, and adapted a section of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute.

You can watch the result, the ten-minute Papageno, at the top of the post. A bird-catcher, the title character finds one day that all the avians around him have become tiny human females. Though none of them stick around, an ostrich later delivers him a full-size maiden, only for a giant snake to drive her away. Will Papageno defeat the serpent and reclaim his beloved, or submit to despair?

“The magic of the fairy tale has always been her greatest fascination, yet her own interpretations attain a unique quality,” says the narrator of the 1970 documentary short just above, in which Reiniger re-enacts the thoroughly analog and highly labor-intensive making of Papageno. “The figures she cuts out and constructs were originally inspired by the puppets used in traditional Eastern shadow theaters, of which the silhouette form is the logical conclusion.” This hybridization of venerable narrative material from Western lands like Germany with an even more venerable aesthetic from Eastern lands like Indonesia has assured only part of her work’s enduring appeal. “Ms. Reiniger will continue to have a strange affection for each of her figures,” the narrator notes. This is “an understandable affection, for in their flexibility they have almost human characteristics of movement.” It’s an affection anyone with an interest in animation, fairy tales, or Mozart will share.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Rome’s Colosseum Will Get a New Retractable Floor by 2023 — Just as It Had in Ancient Times

Rome wasn’t built in a day. But one of its most renowned attractions could be returned to its first-century glory in just two years — or at least, part of one of its most famous attractions could be. In our time, the Colosseum has long been a major Roman tourist destination–one that lacks even a proper floor. Visitors today see right through to its underground hypogeum, an impressive mechanical labyrinth used to convey gladiators into the arena, as well as a variety of other performers, willing and unwilling, human and otherwise. “Eyewitnesses describe how animals appeared suddenly from below, as if by magic, sometimes apparently launched high into the air,” writes Smithsonian‘s Tom Mueller.

“The hypogeum allowed the organizers of the games to create surprises and build suspense,” the German Archaeological Institute in Rome’s Heinz-Jürgen Beste tells Mueller. “A hunter in the arena wouldn’t know where the next lion would appear, or whether two or three lions might emerge instead of just one.”

Now, the Italian government has announced plans to return the element of surprise to the Colosseum with a restoration of its elaborate “retractable floor.” This has drawn the attention of media concerned with history and travel, but also the world of architecture and design. With €10 million already pledged by the state, the worldwide call is out for architectural proposals, due by February 1 of this year for a tentative completion date of 2023.

The Colosseum, which once seated 50,000 spectators, hasn’t put on a battle since the fifth century. The hypogeum’s long exposure to the elements means that any architectural firm eager to take on this project will have its work cut out for it. Few restorations could demand the striking of a trickier balance between historical faithfulness and modern functionality. Whatever design gets selected, its trap doors and hidden elevators will be employed for rather different entertainments than, say, the death matches between slaves and beasts to which so many ancient Romans thrilled. The Italian government intends to use the Colosseum’s new floor to put on theater productions and concerts – which should turn it into an even more popular attraction when we can all once again go to the theater, concerts, and indeed Italy.

via Smithsonian

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Antonio Gramsci Writes a Column, “I Hate New Year’s Day” (January 1, 1916)

I want every morning to be a new year’s for me. Every day I want to reckon with myself, and every day I want to renew myself. No day set aside for rest. I choose my pauses myself, when I feel drunk with the intensity of life and I want to plunge into animality to draw from it new vigour.

“Everyday is like Sunday,” sang the singer of our mopey adolescence, “In the seaside town that they forgot to bomb.” Somehow I could feel the grey malaise of post-industrial Britain waft across the ocean when I heard these words… the dreary sameness of the days, the desire for a conflagration to wipe it all away….

The call for total annihilation is not the sole province of supervillains and heads of state. It is the same desire Andrew Marvell wrote of centuries earlier in “The Garden.” The mind, he observed, “withdraws into its happiness” and creates “Far other worlds, and other seas; Annihilating all that’s made / To a green thought in a green shade.”

Is not annihilation what we seek each year on New Year’s Eve? To collectively wipe away the bad past by fiat, with fireworks? To welcome a better future in the morning, because an arbitrary record keeping system put in place before Marvell was born tells us we can? The problem with this, argued Italian Marxist party pooper and theorist Antonio Gramsci, is the problem with dates in general. We don’t get to schedule our apocalypses.

On January 1st, 1916, Gramsci published a column titled “I Hate New Year’s Day” in the Italian Socialist Party’s official paper Avanti!, which he began co-editing that year.

Every morning, when I wake again under the pall of the sky, I feel that for me it is New Year’s day.

That’s why I hate these New Year’s that fall like fixed maturities, which turn life and human spirit into a commercial concern with its neat final balance, its outstanding amounts, its budget for the new management. They make us lose the continuity of life and spirit. You end up seriously thinking that between one year and the next there is a break, that a new history is beginning; you make resolutions, and you regret your irresolution, and so on, and so forth. This is generally what’s wrong with dates.

The dates we keep, he says, are forms of “spiritual time-serving” imposed on us from without by “our silly ancestors.” They have become “invasive and fossilizing,” forcing life into repeating series of “mandatory collective rhythms” and forced vacations. But that is not how life should work, according to Gramsci.

Whether or not we find merit in his cranky pronouncements, or in his desire for socialism to “hurl into the trash all of these dates with have no resonance in our spirit,” we can all take one thing away from Gramsci’s critique of dates, and maybe make another resolution today: to make every morning New Year’s, to reckon with and renew ourselves daily, no matter what the calendar tells us to do. Read a full translation of Gramsci’s column at Viewpoint Magazine.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Archaeologists Discover an Ancient Roman Snack Bar in the Ruins of Pompeii

Have you ever wondered what generations hundreds or thousands of years hence will make of our strip malls, office parks, and sports arenas? Probably not much, since there probably won’t be much left. How much medium-density fibreboard is likely to remain? The colorful structures that make the modern world seem solid, the grocery shelves, fast food counters, and shiny product displays, will return to the sawdust from which they came.

Back in antiquity, on the other hand, things were built to last, even through the fires and devastation of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. Archaeologists will be discovering for many more years everyday features of Pompeii that survived a historic disaster and the ordinary ravages of time. In 2019, a team fully unearthed what is known as a thermopolium, a fancy Greek word for a snack bar that “would have served hot food and drinks to locals in the city,” the BBC reports. The find was only unveiled this past Saturday.

Images from

You can see the excavation in a subtitled virtual tour at the top conducted by Massimo Osanna, Pompeii’s general director and the “mastermind,” Smithsonian writes, behind the Great Pompeii Project, a “$140 million conservation and restoration program launched in 2012.”

Richly decorated with brightly-colored paintings, preserved by ash, the Thermopolium of Regio V, as it’s known, features a scene of a nereid riding a sea-horse. Surrounding her on all sides of the counter are illustrations of the food for sale, including “two mallard ducks shown upside down, ready to be cooked and eaten,” notes the official Pompeii site, “a rooster,” and “a dog on a lead, the latter serving as a warning in the manner of the famed Cave Canem.”

Undeterred and spurred on by the Romans’ famed love of graffiti, someone scratched a “mocking inscription” into the frame around the dog: “NICIA CINAEDE CACATOR—literally ‘Nicias (probably a freedman from Greece) Shameless Shitter!’” The message may have been left by a disgruntled worker, “who sought to poke fun at the owner.” Also found at the site were bone fragments in containers belonging to the animals pictured, as well as human bones and “various pantry and transport materials” such as amphorae, flasks, and other typical Roman containers.

Despite its elaborate design and the excitement of its discoverers, the thermopolium was nothing special in its day. Such counters were like Starbucks, “widespread in the Roman world, where it was typical to consume the prandium (the meal) outside the house. In Pompeii alone there are eighty of them.” Will future archaeologists thrill over the discovery of a Cinnabon in a thousand years’ time? We’ll never know, but somehow I doubt it. Learn much more about this discovery at the official site for Pompeii, which hopes to reopen to visitors in the Spring of 2021. All images come via

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How Martin Luther King Jr. Got C’s in Public Speaking–Before Becoming a Straight-A Student & a World Class Orator

How many Americans have never heard the name of Martin Luther King Jr.? And indeed, gone more than half a century though he may be, how many Americans have never heard his voice, or can’t quote his words? Long though King will doubtless stand as an example of the English language’s greatest 20th-century orators, he once showed scant academic promise in that department. Tweeting out an image of his transcript from Crozer Theological Seminary, where King earned his Bachelor of Divinity, Harvard’s Sarah Elizabeth Lewis notes that King “received two Cs in public speaking,” and “actually went from a C+ to a C the next term.”

Still, that beat the marks King had previously received at Morehouse College. In an article for The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, Stanford’s Clayborne Carson quotes religion professor George D. Kelsey as describing King’s record there as “short of what may be called ‘good,'” but also adding that King came “to realize the value of scholarship late in his college career.” This early underachievement may have been a consequence of King’s entrance into college at the young age of fifteen, which was made possible by Morehouse’s offering its entrance exam to junior high schoolers, its student body having been depleted by enlistment in the Second World War.

But King “probably realized that he would have to become more diligent in his studies if he were to succeed at the small Baptist institution in Chester, Pennsylvania, a small town southwest of Philadelphia,” writes Carson. “Evidently wishing to break with the relaxed attitude he had had toward his Morehouse studies,” he “quickly immersed himself in Crozer’s intellectual environment” and adopted a mien of high seriousness. “If I were a minute late to class, I was almost morbidly conscious of it,” King later recalled. “I had a tendency to overdress, to keep my room spotless, my shoes perfectly shined, and my clothes immaculately pressed.”

The young King eventually rose to the role in which he’d cast himself, thanks in part to the rigor of certain professors who knew what to expect from him. Apart from the sole minus blemishing his grade in “Christianity and Society,”  his transcript for 1950-51 shows straight As. “By the time of his graduation,” Carson writes, “King’s intellectual confidence was reinforced by the experience of having successfully competed with white students during his Crozer years.” Named student body president and class valedictorian, “he was also accepted for doctoral study at Boston University’s School of Theology, where he would be able to work directly with the personalist theologians he had come to admire.” Even then, one suspects, King knew the real work lay ahead of him — and well outside the academy, at that.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

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