RHS London botanical art show


People have been painting and drawing flowers for many hundreds of years, both as ways of identifying and distinguishing plants, usually herbals for medicinal purposes, but also as decorative motifs. The art form was at its height in the eighteenth century, with such exquisite painters as Jacob van Huysum, Georg Dionysius Ehret and Elizabeth Blackwell, who used to live in Swan Walk, overlooking Chelsea Physic Garden.

In Victorian times, intrepid ladies like Marianne North, whose work adorns every square inch of her own gallery at Kew, used to set off into the foothills of the Himalayas, the Australian outback, the jungles of Sarawak and the rocky cliffs of Chile, to find and paint botanical specimens. There has been a resurgence of interest in florilegia, promoted by the Physic Garden, the RHS, the Chelsea School of Botanical Art, and overseas, The American Society of Botanical Artists.

The two-day show had a total of 28 world-class botanical painters on display, of which 26 were women, and eight were Japanese. As a visitor, I counted only a handful of men looking at the work as well, which might say something RHS London Botanical Art Show Vincent Square about the temperament required for this kind of highly-detailed, almost obsessive, art-form. In the sixties and seventies there was a charming, gentle man called Rory McEwen, who, as well as being a songwriter/musician, took the genre of botanical art and gave it a damn good shake, producing sublime watercolours on vellum of flowers, dying leaves, crumpled mushrooms, shiny peppers and purple Indian onions. McEwen set a standard that is hard to surpass, but there are some game contenders, including one of the half dozen Gold Medal winners, Kumiko Takano, whose Rubus fruticosis, or blackberries, is a triumph of composition, variation in the ripeness of the fruit, and, needless to say, meticulous attention to the tiniest detail. Kimiyo Maruyama has done the same with her depiction of pines, and she also was awarded a Gold Medal, four of which went to Japanese artists. Kathy Pickles was the only Brit to win a Gold, with her helleborus and fritillaria paintings, while Turkish Gülnar Eksi won hers for her plants from the woods and forests of Chile.

The standard was pretty high throughout the exhibition, and there was sometimes little apparent difference between the metals of the medals, and one can only sympathise with those that failed to even get an award at all. This is an exacting discipline, and presumably points are awarded for botanical accuracy, aesthetic appeal, presentation and, it seems, as much detail that can be included on the paper. And that, we are assured, is where the devil is.

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