Yes, that Beatrix Potter. No, really.
Before she switched to children's stories, Potter became an accomplished amateur mycologist - in a place and time when nearly all naturalists were amateurs. Although painting and nature drawing in particular were common skills in the pre-photography era, Potter became especially accomplished. This collection chronicles her growth as a scientific observer, even showing how specific points in her study of British fungi changed the sets of observations captured in her watercolors. This beautfiful book collects many of her scientific illustrations and outlines her career as naturalist, with side trips to archaeology and geology.
These watercolors remain as vivid and precise as ever. They are completely adequate for identifying each species shown, even when subtle differences distinguish similar taxa. In fact, some of these paintings establish her primacy of discovery. One case describes the first reported sighting of some mushroom species in Scotland, as recorded in the literature of the day, then unequivocally shows the same species in her Scottish field notes more than a decade earlier. Potter brought her science into the lab, too, where she pioneered culture of many mushroom species that had never been raised from spores before. Again, her drawings and paintings record microscope images that remain true to nature, and that capture visual knowledge held by no one else in the world of her time. Through techniques she developed, she pioneered new studies in the growth of mushrooms, overturning several volumes of incorrect knowledge in the process. She made enough progress in that world for one of her papers to be read (by a man) at a major scientific conference.
Therein lay her drama. The scientific establishment of the day was a hidebound men's club of squabbling personalities. They caught her in the double bind that, if her reports went beyond or (gasp!) contradicted current authority, then they must be rejected; if they replicated what was known, then there was no reason to accept them. Simply being female was reason enough to disregard her work.
None of that detracts from her achievements as artist and observer. If anything, she demonstrates that science and art hold more in common than not, and that anyone who thinks otherwise doesn't know enough about either. Photographic realism is the least of her accomplishments - her sense of composition combined with her scientific training created illustrations that would improve any contemporary text in which they appeared.