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May 16, 2014 6:15 pm

Chelsea Flower Show: the golden age of botanical art

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Camellia japonica 'Bob's Tinsie', by Jonny Bruce

Camellia japonica 'Bob's Tinsie', by Jonny Bruce

Painting plants has an ancient history but it was in the 17th and 18th centuries that botanical art began to thrive. This period of discovery required artists to record accurately the flora and fauna of exotic lands in order to convey the wonders of the New World. The golden age of botanical illustration was born out of a specific scientific purpose. As Michelle Meyer, a former president of the American Society of Botanical Artists, says, botanical illustration is “art in the service of science”.

Yet, if the primary reason for such art is to record plant form, why is it flourishing in a world of high-definition photography? I don’t sit at my drawing board for hours in the hope of creating something to further our scientific understanding of camellias and I doubt that other botanical artists do either. Botanical illustration is not so much the particular documentation of a leaf or a flower but the personal engagement between artist and plant. It captures something more than a photograph ever could.

 

In 2005, the writer and collector Shirley Sherwood curated an exhibition titled A New Flowering: 1000 Years of Botanical Art at Oxford’s Ashmolean museum. In this show new and old were placed together to support Sherwood’s view that there is “another ‘Golden Age’ here and now”. Although the exhibition intended to observe similarities across time, it was the differences that caught my attention.

In the 18th century, flower painting was considered the lowest form of painting, well below the religious and historical scenes venerated by the academies recently established across Europe’s capital cities. Due to New World explorers, botany was “big business and big science” and academy painters often earned their crusts and upped their profiles by joining expeditions. As Daniela Bleichmar explains in Visible Empire: Botanical Expeditions and Visual Culture in the Hispanic Enlightenment, botanical paintings in the 18th century were more than mere scientific records, they were also advertisements for new commercial opportunities.

Some expeditions employed huge numbers of artists, even establishing art schools specifically intended to train botanical artists in the country being explored. José Celestino Mutis, who worked in South America for more than 30 years, employed 60 artists and produced more than 5,500 paintings.

Almost 250 years on, Mutis’ paintings are surely as captivating as ever, but I feel less of a personal connection. They are of exceptional beauty: slavishly detailed with carefully annotated anatomical diagrams designed to be read by botanists and horticulturists, they show a nature perfected for science without the same ontological inquiry that defines the work of many contemporary botanical artists.

 

An artist who epitomises such an approach is Rory McEwen, whose work featured in The Colours of Reality exhibition held at Kew in 2013. FT readers may be familiar with McEwen through Robin Lane Fox’s article published last August. Lane Fox revealed a multi-talented artist with a sensitivity to the natural world that was ingrained in his rural upbringing and expressed through his art and music.

McEwen once wrote, “I paint flowers as a way of getting as close as possible to what I perceive as the truth, my truth of the time in which I lived”. His words are given poignancy by his early death from cancer, a struggle that is infused in the series of dead leaves he produced following his fatal diagnosis.

His images show a furious intensity that go beyond a simple memento mori. Instead of using the plant’s Latin names, these paintings are titled by the places where they were found, places of particular significance to his life.

Although beautiful, the images of Mutis’s 1783 expedition do not contain the same self-exploration. As Bleichmar observes, these paintings “depict a nature that is always green, always in flower, static in its lushness, decontextualised geographically on the white page”. By contrast, McEwen’s images reveal a nature that speaks more to us than scientific regulation or the contemporary world might normally allow.

Today’s botanical artists go beyond the merely visual. As his daughter Christabel has said, McEwen “was searching for some real meaning in our physical existence and when he looked at a flower he wasn’t just looking at it as a flower, it’s almost as if he was looking for its soul”.

Jonny Bruce starts work as the Christopher Lloyd scholar at Great Dixter in September. He is editor of The Germ

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