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Harvard Magazine | The Paintings Behind the Books in the Harvard Botanical Museum by PAFA alum Rosa M. Towne

The Paintings Found Behind a Shelf of Books in the Harvard Botanical Museum

Edward Tabor shares the discovery of hidden illustrated books in Harvard's Botanical Museum and how it connects to Shakespeare and a PAFA student, Rosa M. Towne (1827-1909), who painted illustrations of  plants mentioned by Shakespeare.

From Tabor: 

"She wrote that she had decided to do the paintings using “live plants and trees” as models whenever possible. She accompanied each painting by a Shakespeare quotation in which it is mentioned.

The discovery of the Rosa Towne paintings by Oakes Ames, and their rediscovery and publication in book form by Schultes, were also important cultural rescues for the future of Shakespeare studies.

The book shows the extent of Shakespeare’s botanical knowledge, provides a compendium of the 182 plants that we know Shakespeare was familiar with, and lists their common and scientific names. It provided, for the first time, a single collection of botanically accurate paintings that would help scholars and critics visualize exactly what Shakespeare had in mind when he mentioned a plant or when a plant played a key role in the action of one of his plays, such as the plant-derived poison used by Hamlet’s uncle to kill Hamlet’s father, the king."

Read the full article in Harvard Magazine at the link below.

Cover with script for Illustrations by Rosa M. Towne of the Plant Lore of Shakespeare
Illustrations by Rosa M. Towne of the Plant Lore of Shakespeare 
Artwork by Rosa M. Towne and photograph by Edward Tabor 


painted illustration of carnations by rosa m towne
(1) Carnations. (2) Gillyvors. 
Perdita: "The fairest flower o' the season
Are our Carnations and streaked Gillyvors, 
Which some call Nature's bastards"
—Winter's Tale, Act IV, sc. 4 
​​​​​Artwork by Rosa M. Towne
Photograph by Edward Tabor 


Last Updated
December 24, 2021 - 4:03 PM

About PAFA

Founded in 1805, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts is America's first school and museum of fine arts. A recipient of the National Medal of Arts, PAFA offers undergraduate and graduate programs in the fine arts, innovative exhibitions of historic and contemporary American art, and a world-class collection of American art. PAFA’s esteemed alumni include Mary Cassatt, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, William Glackens, Barkley L. Hendricks, Violet Oakley, Louis Kahn, David Lynch, and Henry Ossawa Tanner.