The art of science: women illustrators

Meet some inspiring illustrators from the Royal Society collections

Discover the secret histories of some of the women who illustrated science. Be inspired by their inventiveness, tenacity and innovations through the Royal Society collections.

Elizabeth Blackwell's botanical study of the 'Caprifolium' (honeysuckle) (1750) by Elizabeth Blackwell, nee Blachrie (1707-1758)The Royal Society


Drawing was another way in which women engaged with science. Scientific illustrations are essential to record, explain and disseminate represented phenomena. As many aristocratic women were trained in fine art, illustrating became an accepted scientific activity for women. Illustrators, despite being the hands of knowledge in the early modern period, were however rarely named contributors.

Illustration from Historiae Conchyliorum (1685) by Susanna (d.1669) and Anna Lister (1671-1700)The Royal Society

Susanna (d.1669) and Anna Lister (1671-1700), daughters of the naturalist Martin Lister FRS (1639-1712) drew and engraved beautifully accurate plates of shells for the first comprehensive work on conchology, their father's Historiae Conchyliorum.

They traced shell outlines directly onto the copper to remain as close to the object contours as possible.

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The Zurich-born miniaturist and portrait painter Anna Waser (1678-1714) accepted commissioned work and was a court painter.

Illustration by Anna Waser of alpine scenes (c. 1705) by Anna Waser (1678-1714)The Royal Society

The Zurich-born miniaturist and portrait painter Anna Waser (1678-1714) accepted commissioned work and was a court painter.

She produced original illustrations on vellum for the Itinera Alpina of the polymath Johann Jakob Scheuchzer (1672-1733).

Illustration of alpine rocks and minerals by Anna Waser (1678-1714)The Royal Society

The book was sent to the Royal Society for publication with the endorsement of Sir Isaac Newton.

Maria Sibilla Merian (1717) by After Georg GsellRoyal Collection Trust, UK

Maria Sybilla Merian (1647-1717) started as a botanic illustrator, publishing Neues Blumenbuch at the age of 28 years old.

Maria Merian's study of a harlequin beetle on a citron fruit, with a moth in stages of development. (1705) by Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717)The Royal Society

The German-born naturalist is now most famous for contributing to entomology through her splendid watercolours of insects in Surinam.

During a scientific exploration of the then Dutch colony in 1699, Merian illustrated the metamorphosis of insects, representing their full life-cycles and habitats.

Study of a bird-eating spider with humming bird (1705) by Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717)The Royal Society

Maria Merian’s remarkable studies of insect life in South America contain many first-time observations and famous plates, including an apparent bird-eating spider.

Merian published her observations upon her return to Amsterdam in Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium.

Branch of West Indian Cherry with Achilles Morpho Butterfly (1702/1703) by Maria Sibylla MerianRoyal Collection Trust, UK

She hand-coloured the engraved plates of several of the books, but the copy of the Royal Society is only partially coloured.

Elizabeth Blackwell's botanical study of the 'Caprifolium' (honeysuckle) (1750) by Elizabeth Blackwell, nee Blachrie (1707-1758)The Royal Society

The Scottish botanic illustrator, Elizabeth Blackwell (1707-1758) created hundreds of illustrations for her Curious Herbal (1737) to raise money after her husband was imprisoned for debt.

Citrullus anguria (1750) by Elizabeth Blackwell (1707-1758)The Royal Society

She trained as a botanist at Chelsea Physic Garden and made at least one medical plate for the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions during that period. Her reputation for accuracy secured this second edition.

‘A Tapoa Tafa’ [Brush-tailed phascogale] (1790) by Sarah Stone (1760 - 1844)The Royal Society

Sarah Stone (1760–1844) recorded the contents of the dispersed Leverian Museum, including material from James Cook’s voyages presenting the first studies of various species.

Ornithological study of a Lord Howe Swamphen or White Gallinule (Porphyrio albus), an extinct bird native to Lord Howe Island, Australia. (1790) by Sarah Stone (1760-1844)The Royal Society

The natural history illustrator exhibited at the Royal Academy. Her illustrations for John White’s Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales contained plates of later Australian material, including birds such as the now-extinct Lord Howe Swamphen.

These are the stories of some early women who made science visible. Discover more inspiring women pioneers from our collections.

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