Had I not been a landscape architect, gardener or fashion designer – all professions suggested by my school careers advisor, who was largely at a loss with anyone who didn’t want to be a teacher, lawyer or doctor – I might have been a botanical artist. As a student I possessed extraordinary patience and an unhealthy obsession with detail. My writing and drawing were painfully precise, reflecting the personality of an uptight and highly strung young man who needed to ‘let go’ more. (This has changed, in that I am now a middle-aged man who needs to ‘let go’ more!) I preferred pencils to paint and recorded every vein, sinew and shadow of my subjects with pinpoint accuracy. These days I still have the pencils, but neither the time nor patience to draw with them. Having visited the RHS Botanical Art Show in London last week I now wonder if I might have missed my calling.
I seem to recall that the RHS Botanical Art Show was once combined with a flower show, and consequently I paid the art section scant attention. If so, that was a sad oversight on my part. This year, botanical artists from as far afield as Japan, New Zealand, Korea and the USA had the Lindley Hall to themselves, and what a joy it was to appreciate their work in that lofty space. The variety of styles and approaches to the genre fascinating to see. It’s some time since I have seen the Lindley Hall venue so packed: the shared pleasure and admiration of the crowds were palpable. Between the 30 or so artists exhibiting, the whole spectrum of plant life was observed, from eucalypts to anemones, onions to orchids.
Now, I am no expert, but I could spot the stand-out exhibit from a mile off. In a style reminiscent of the posters that used to gather cobwebs in my school biology lab, artist Mariko Ikeda had recorded specimens of the genus Pandanus in astonishingly beautiful detail. Painted on creamy-white vellum, spherical bundles of orange, green and yellow fruit leapt from the canvas as if they were there in front of me. Mariko’s work was, justly, awarded a gold medal and Best Botanical Art Exhibit.
Conincidentally, the artwork that won Best Botanical Painting, a representation of Beta vulgaris by Bridget Gillespie, was hanging directly opposite. Herein one could appreciate the particular skills and disciplines required to achieve botanical accuracy. Some of those are shared with other art forms, but the importance of representing a subject clearly and accurately was masterfully demonstrated in Bridget’s work.
Remarkable as some good pieces of botanical art are, I wouldn’t necessarily want them on my wall at home. I’d certainly have given house room to Vivienne Rew’s sublimely realistic renderings of an oriental poppy (Papaver orientale), depicted from bud to seed head. Vivienne’s large renderings on heavy white paper were achieved with a mind-boggling number of tiny brushstrokes and clever techniques, creating finished artwork that could almost be mistaken for photography.
Annie Hughes’ series of paintings depicting the Eucalyptus of Western Australia were richly detailed, as were Silvana Rava’s delicate sketches of Italian vegetables. Rachel Dein, an artist from North London, demonstrated how to turn flowers and foliage into intricate, spectral plaster casts.
This being the Royal Horticultural Society, botanical accuracy is paramount, especially when it comes to awarding medals. I overheard a judge explaining to one Japanese artist that she had lost marks simply for failing to correctly name the variety of clematis she had painted. Harsh, but them’s the rules I suppose. For the record, that clematis was Clematis florida var. florida ‘Sieboldiana’ and it was painted most elegantly, in my humble opinion, by Kazumi Yoshikawa. All of Kazumi’s paintings were of white flowers and I’d have been delighted to own a single one of them.
A drawback of the show set-up is that artworks are shielded from greasy fingers by clear plastic film, more or less professionally applied. This make it difficult to appreciate some of the finer details of the work, and might perhaps be better replaced by sheets of clear perpex set away from the panels, like those used by Mariko Ikeda to protect her precious pandanus portraits.
Is it too late for me to discover if I might have a talent for botanical art? I think not. There were a bewildering number of art schools and artists offering courses lasting from one day to several months, located in all manner of tempting places. And, judging by the average age of those attending the show, I still have a few years left to explore whether I have retained any of my youthful talents. In the meantime I am quite happy to admire the incredible artistry of those who can see, interpret, celebrate and record the wonders of nature for us all to marvel at.
For anyone interested to view or purchase botanical art, The Society of Botanical Artists will hold their annual open exhibition at Central Hall, Westminster, from October 13-21 2017.