Botanical paintings, precise and finely worked, are having more than a moment in the sun. Now and in the future, botanical art continues to play an important role in plant ecology, recording species and their characteristics with an accuracy and anatomical detail that a photograph cannot.
“Human activity now threatens many plants with extinction before we even realise they exist,” says Christopher Mills, curator of The Botanical Treasury and former head of library, art and archives at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. “The aspiration to complete the cataloguing of the world’s flora has gained, if anything, an even stronger imperative.”
The publication this month of a sumptuous book of Kew’s archive prints, The Botanical Treasury, as well as two botanical art shows in London, provide pin-sharp contrast to the Impressionist paintings of plants and gardens currently at the Royal Academy — and show that the stories behind the plants are as fascinating as the plants themselves.
In The Botanical Treasury, for example, the pineapple-like fruit of the screw pine, the African tree discovered by David Livingstone on his Zambezi expedition of 1858, is captured in watercolours by Thomas Baines, the ship’s official artist and storekeeper.
A splendid portrait of a spiky banksia dates back to Captain Cook’s first Pacific voyage in 1768, when a botanical illustrator on the Endeavour, Sydney Parkinson, painted it so that, along with the ship’s resident botanist Joseph Banks sending back the plants and seeds, an accurate record could be made.
Here are pictures of the extraordinary and fantastic: fire engine-red pitcher plants; the rare blue orchid of Assam; epiphytic bromeliads that root in the crowns of trees in tropical forests; cinchonas, the quinine trees that crowd the high slopes of the Andes; the tree tumbo of Angola, a twisting, twirling desert plant that lives up to 2,000 years with just two yard-long, tentacle-like leaves and bizarre-looking cones.
The Victorian botanical artists were as intrepid as the plant hunters, scouring mountains and jungles for new species. More recently, British artist and explorer Margaret Mee, who died in 1988, made 15 solo forays into the depths of the Amazon rainforest, recording the extraordinary plant life in her paintings and diaries, alerting a then-oblivious world to the consequences of the rainforest’s destruction. Mee painted the moonflower, a fabulous night-blooming cactus, by torchlight from the deck of a riverboat in a flooded forest. At Rio Carnival, a prominent samba school carries her name.
You can see Mee’s work this month at Kew, in an exhibition titled Brazil — A Powerhouse of Plants. Also included is the work of contemporary Brazilian artists such as Ronaldo Pangella, who paints orchids tucked into crevices on the steep slopes of Sugarloaf Mountain, reaching them with ropes and tackle.
Sarah Howard Sherlock, having married an Englishman who fell in love with Ethiopia on a gap year and took her back there to live, painted as many of the country’s endemic plants as possible because, she explains, there are no field guides.
You can admire her exquisite paintings of Ethiopian aloes at the forthcoming RHS London Botanical Art Show, featuring the work of 35 artists from around the world.
- Brazil — A Powerhouse of Plants is at Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art, RBG Kew, from Feb 20-Aug 29. Visit www.kew.org for more details.
- RHS London Botanical Art Show, Vincent Square SW1, Feb 26-27 (rhs.org.uk/shows-events).
- The Botanical Treasury (André Deutsch) by Christopher Mills costs £35, but Homes & Property readers can buy it for £30 incl p& — call 0844 576 8122 and quote code AD227.