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Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation

Botanists’ Art

Selections from the Archives of the Hunt Institute

Benjamin Yoe Morrison

"This morning the Nippon sailed away and the last bit of home for me is my trunk!" Thus 24-year-old Benjamin Yoe Morrison began a year of travel in 1916. Morrison was born in Atlanta and graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in 1913. He earned Phi Beta Kappa membership and a master of landscape architecture degree at Harvard in 1915. He also earned Harvard's Sheldon traveling fellowship, with which he sailed to Japan, China and Korea the year before the United States entered World War I—visiting and sketching. A fraction of the results of that travel year are shown here.

In 1910 Alfred Stieglitz wrote that photography's reproductive accuracy made realist painting and drawing obsolete and that media such as drawing and painting should emphasize their own particular qualities (see David Bjelajac's American Art: A Cultural History, New York, Abrams, 2001). Though that hypothesis did not penetrate the realm of scientific illustration, Morrison certainly emphasized the decorative, expressive, even impressionist qualities of ink in the works presented here. His detailed compositions on cardstock or manila paper seem to have more ink and energy the smaller they get; the frame he's drawn for them seems barely able to hold them. Morrison was prolific, drawing people, landscapes, temples, shrines, upmarket architectural details, neglected neighborhoods and public and private gardens.

While the Hunt Institute's Art Department has many of Morrison's formal plant portraits (see Catalogue of the Botanical Art Collection at the Hunt Institute database), his more informal, architecturally focused drawings remain with his personal collection of manuscripts and correspondence in the Archives. The journal of his fellowship year also resides in the Hunt Institute Archives, filled with awe at his surroundings as well as the awe of his hosts: "Made four drawings, one before lunch and three after. The first of a gateway on a side street.... In an incredibly short time the inmates of the house discovered me and came to see what was going on. They were kindly disposed and I think quite amused and interested. The police came often to see what all the crowd was about and smiled a little for the crowd was always enjoying the fun."

The energetic young artist went on to become a specialist in ornamentals, director of the United States National Arboretum, head of the USDA's Division of Plant Exploration and Introduction, editor of National Horticultural Magazine and a prolific hybridizer of azalea and iris.

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Benjamin Yoe Morrison (1891–1966), unknown location, 12 January 1916, photograph by an unknown photographer, HI Archives portrait no. 14.

Benjamin Yoe Morrison (1891–1966), unknown location, 12 January 1916, photograph by an unknown photographer, HI Archives portrait no. 14.