Like beggars by the wayside dressed in gay attire
December 3, 2020 4:36 PM   Subscribe

Born in 1822 to a prominent family in Talbot County, Mary Elizabeth Banning moved with her older sister and widowed mother to Baltimore in 1855. Alongside tending to her ailing family members, she cultivated her penchant for the study and illustration of natural objects, especially mushrooms. After some correspondence with leading botanists of her time, in 1868 she began to write and illustrate a complete catalogue of the fungi of Maryland. The project took her more than twenty years and resulted in a manuscript of scientific descriptions accompanied by 175 detailed, 13" by 15", original watercolor illustrations of mushroom species, many of which previously unknown.

In 1890 Banning entrusted the manuscript to the chief botanist at the New York State Museum where it remained, hidden in a drawer for nearly a century. It was rediscovered and a selection of watercolours prepared for an exhibit in 1980, but excepting some of the illustrations appearing in folk art shows, the full volume remains unpublished. The NYSM’s web gallery of 48 of the illustrations is currently off-line, but access is still possible via the Wayback Machine:


Lactarius indigo

Coprinus comatus

Fistulina hepatica

Polyporus beattiei

Agaricus americanus

Russula virescens

The curator responsible for the manuscript’s re-emergence also published his appreciation of the work, as well as a biography of Banning. Alone and penniless at her death, she has since been inducted into the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame, and is recognised as a luminary among a small, indomitable circle of pioneering women mycologists; there is an Amanita that (provisionally) bears her name.
posted by progosk (13 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Excellent stuff, thank you!
posted by carter at 5:21 PM on December 3, 2020

These are dang pretty! It would be silly to say they are analogous to Charley Harper’s takes on birds, but I do think some have a certain similar cartoon quality. e.g. and e.g.
posted by Going To Maine at 6:29 PM on December 3, 2020

Hmm, I guess Atlas Obscura might have jazzed up the color palette for Polyporus beattiei a bit - that seems rude.
posted by Going To Maine at 6:30 PM on December 3, 2020

That's Mary Banning with a "B", not to be confused with pioneering English naturalist and fossil collector Mary Anning.
posted by Nerd of the North at 10:13 PM on December 3, 2020

I hope the whole thing is online eventually. A book might still happen, but seems less likely.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 10:22 PM on December 3, 2020

Atlas Obscura might have jazzed up the color palette

It’s really unfortunate they chose to go with a series of oversatured and -exposed scans, sourced from some now-defunct merch outfit... the colours of the originals (on which Banning herself remarked: “It may be thought by those unacquainted with the glowing colors found among fungi that some of my drawings are the creation of fancy, but such is not the case. I invite the careful observation of the skeptical and they will find that their paintboxes hardly afford pigments bright enough to sketch those beauties of the woods.”) really stand out enough just as they are (though judging by her Amanita muscaria, some pigments don’t seem to have withstood the test of time...).

I actually think that the schematism with which the species are portrayed is intentional, and that she wasn’t aiming for realistic/artistic still-lives, as per her notes in her introduction to the series: “My first idea of drawing and painting the Fungi of Maryland had for its object educational training in a mission school. I thought that to color and describe them would be the most effectual method of explaining the many abstruse points in structure which might otherwise be forgotten. What more difficult department in Botany could have been selected —”. So Harper’s graphic synthesis is an interesting comparison (tftl, was not aware of his work), though it seems he definitely aimed for aesthetic effect first, as opposed to Banning’s scientific/pedagogic intent.
posted by progosk at 1:28 AM on December 4, 2020 [2 favorites]

(Interestingly, the charitable/educational bent of her scientific vocation, which ultimately led to selfless destitution, chimes with the rueful hindsight put into testament by her plantation- and slaveholding grandfather, Jeremiah Banning.)
posted by progosk at 1:36 AM on December 4, 2020

Mycologist here. Those are very good.
posted by acrasis at 5:28 AM on December 4, 2020 [3 favorites]

Yeah, Banning’s illustrations highlight characteristics for identification, as one would expect. Harper’s are attractive but barely look like birds.

I was doing research in grad school and found a lurid, hand-watercolored, probably hand-typed guide to the Russulas. I think it claimed to be one of an edition of five copies. It 1) was not very good and helps me appreciate Banning’s work more and 2) makes me sad that things like that are getting abandoned in the stacks as online-only research becomes more common, it was a delightful surprise (and a warning against getting overconfident in my skills).
posted by momus_window at 8:36 AM on December 4, 2020

TIL there is a phallic mushroom named “fetid weed witch”. And that I have been underestimating the available entertainment in museums.
posted by pulposus at 4:36 PM on December 4, 2020

That's one word. 'Grotesque mockery' is two words.

This is probably closer to the delicate original.

At least her work was appreciated and preserved by a contemporary expert. From the Wayback:
In 1868 there were no books from which to learn about American fungi. Miss Banning's consuming interest in this subject led her to the New York State Museum's Charles Peck, one of America's leading mycologists.... Peck became Mary Banning's mentor in the identification of fungi ... she became the leading mycologist in her region .... It was the kindly and patient Peck who was her main supporter [and to whom she] donated her illustrated manuscript ... Among the fungi described in her manuscript are 23 species previously unknown to science...
Also notable as one reason it was 'hidden in a drawer': "Much of the beauty of the paintings is dependent on the vibrancy of the pigments and since they are damaged by sunlight, the paintings are in storage." Digitally liberated!
posted by Twang at 7:20 PM on December 4, 2020

This is probably closer to the delicate original

Yes, that’s the NYSM’s own scan of her Polyporus beattei, linked above.

At least her work was appreciated and preserved by a contemporary expert

That Peck’s patronizing instinct (though he did not deny her the epistolary mentorship, he made sure it received no further validation or acclaim), it is ironic that his very decision to deny her work any sort of exposure, guaranteeing its obscuring for a century, both safeguarded its vibrancy, and now even reflects negatively on him for his lack of equanimity.
posted by progosk at 11:43 PM on December 4, 2020

The all-too similar story of Flora Martin née Campbell, in Australia (here in more detail), or Beatrix Potter’s in the UK, demonstrate how systemic this kind of suppression was.
posted by progosk at 12:08 AM on December 5, 2020 [1 favorite]

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