Monday, April 21, 2008

Treasures of Botanical Art - a recommended read

Treasures of Botanical Art by Shirley Sherwood and Martyn Rix has been published by Kew Publishing to mark the inaugural exhibition of the The Shirley Sherwood Gallery in Kew Gardens, the first gallery in the world to be dedicated to year round exhibitions of botanical art.

The book is extensively illustrated and features some 200 illustrations of paintings and drawings from both the Kew and Shirley Sherwood collections.

It provides an overview of the most significant artists from the 1600s through to contemporary artists and informative essays on the origins, history and relevance of botanical illustration with special reference to both the Kew and Shirley Sherwood collections.

It should be noted that the book tends to focus on the paintings and their place in history and in relation to the plants rather than the way in which they were produced in terms of drawing or paintings. It also provides some background on each artist. (In other words, this is not a 'how to' book!)

As with the exhibition, the presentation of the images is largely organised according to themes and so paintings completed many years apart can be presented side by side.

Overall, the colour reproduction of the drawings and paintings I saw on Saturday is excellent. I also really liked the way each illustration is annotated with particularly thorough captions, with artist's details, dimensions of the paintings, medium and material, and the nature of the plant shown.

At the end of the book are biographies of all the artists whose work is reproduced in the book. I find it very interesting to read about some of the backgrounds of the different artists and to understand a bit more about their studies and how long they have been a botanical artist. There are also some interesting snippets by Dr Sherwood about the context for some of the paintings. One of the things I like about the book is the fact it's been written by two experts who know the work well!

The selected bibliography is thorough but the indices for both plants and artists are less so. I actually found them to be less helpful than I would have liked. I've tried to look up the page reference for a few things and not found any listing at all in the relevant index. I'm sure this will be a very popular botanical art book and if it is ever reprinted or updated then I'd suggest some further attention to the index.

Yesterday it was available on Amazon in the UK and today it's out of stock! However this book is available in both hardback and a softcover versions from I always buy the hardback when I expect to review a book a lot - so I did! This is a recommended read.

Featured artists

This is a really difficult section to write - as you might expect given that everything in the exhibition and the book is excellent. I highlighted some artists in history yesterday in the review of the new gallery Kew opens the world's first dedicated botanical art gallery and am highlighting some of the contemporary artists in this post.

The first painting I saw as I walked through the door absolutely demanded that I look at it. The blue of the "Morning Glory" by Josephine Hague (b. 1928) was absolutely perfect. She has also contributed to The Highgrove Florilegium (published by the Prince of Wales 21st April 2008) .

Coral Guest (b 1955)
The Royal Horticultural Society has awarded her 2 gold medals for her paintings of bulbous plants, in which she specialises. She specialises in painting 'life size' and is obviously a favourite artist of Shirley Sherwood. From 1991 to 2002 she was Flower Painting Tutor at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew and has also given Master Classes for Dr Shirley Sherwood in Europe and the USA.

She has also been working on commissions for Dr Sherwood and one of them faces the door as you come into the new gallery. I've frankly never seen a botanical painting of an iris as big as this commissioned piece is. "Supersition" is a black bearded iris and has been painted in watercolour on paper - and the paper measures 1525mm x 1025mm! (That's 60" x 40" for my North American readers!). She has a number of pieces in the exhibition and I also loved her very striking painting of Lapageria rosa and var. albigeria which very deservedly gets a full page image in the book. It's a painting with a wonderful design.

This is Coral Guest's website and this is her blog
Coral Guest - the EXHIBITION DIARY and PAINTER'S JOURNAL of life amongst the flowers - and I commend both to you. It's great to see an artist who is happy to show you her study pages as well as her precision work. I predict much lingering........ ;)

Roses (2) 2001
Watercolour on paper, 305mm x 450mm
Regine Hagedorn (b. Gottingen, Germany 1952)
Collection of Shirley Sherwood

Roses (2) is a very fine painting and a splendid example of botanical art in beautiful colours by Regine Hagedorn. I loved the way the mix of items looked much like the way rose petals fall to the ground. Plus the addition of two very small stripey beetles is in the best tradition of mixing plants and insects. I also very much liked her painting of the stems of "Rosiers" (which is the French for "rose tree" or "rose bush"). She won an RHS Gold medal for watercolour paintings of fruits and seeds at the February show of the Royal Horticultural Society.

Pink Rhododendron
Sally Keir (1938-2007)
Gouache on board, 330mm x 380mm

Shirley Sherwood Collection

The "
Pink Rhododendron" painted by Sally Keir (1938-12007) is very striking given its very unusual black background. I guess I wasn't surprised to see that it has been painted using gouache.

Shirley Sherwood comments in her biography of the artist as follows
...she started painting initially in watercolour, but graduating to gouache to give the more intense and dramatic jewel tones that make her flowers glow from a dark background.
Shirley Sherwood - Treasures of Botanical Art (page 251)
I loved Helen Haywood's Thistle which appeared complex and delicate - odd words to use for a thistle but possibly the best botanical painting of a thistle I've ever seen. Dr Sherwood agrees.
The thistle is one of the best studies of prickles I have ever seen and makes an interesting comparison with the thistle by Simon Taylor (fl 1760-77) and the very different study by Johann Dietzsch (1710-69) which is shown covered by insects and spiders webs.
Shirley Sherwood - Treasures of Botanical Art (page 248)
Camilla Speight's pen and ink rendering of a Dragon Arum caught my eye and had me inspecting it very closely. I was absolutely amazed at the tiny pen and ink marks - I don't know of anything which can produce marks that small - and I now want to know! I can only imagine she was equipped with a miniaturist's lens when she drew it. Luckily I was only inspecting the rendering and didn't come into close quarters with the actual plant - there's a very funny article on the Time Online - A stink on the 10.30 from Paddington - about what happened when she travelled on the train with it as she was preparing to draw it!

I also loved:
  • Leslie Carol Burge's watercolour paintings of the female and male cones of Cycads - the female cones are especially striking
Pansies (undated)
Susannah Blaxill
watercolour on paper 290mm x 360mm
Shirley Sherwood Collection
  • Susannah Blaxill's Beetroot - complete with slug-eaten leaves! There is an image on the splash page of her website which enlarges if you mouse over it (click the link in her name to visit her website). Her pansies are one of the four images chosen for the front cover of the book although interestingly for both cover and plate in the book they have cropped in closer. This is the gallery on her website.
  • Rosie Sanders's watercolour on a full sheet of paper Arisaema - ciliatum, costatum and consanguineum is amazing. She has been awarded five Royal Horticultural Society gold medals and received the Royal Academy miniature award. Her website took a long time to load but is well worth taking a look at - the painting is the first one in her gallery of pictures.
It was interesting for me to note just how large some of the paintings are. This is something which can't always be guaged from reproductions in books - and I do recommend that those who read the book but don't see the exhibition do pay attention to the dimensions!

All in all - this book is a recommended read. Well done to all the artists who have been featured and the authors and publishers for producing a good quality book which I'm sure will become a 'landmark publication'.

Dr Shirley Sherwood and botanical artists and illustrators at the opening reception
RBG, Kew Press Office

1) Dr Shirley Sherwood has been collecting contemporary botanical drawings since 1990. Her comprehensive collection from over two hundred artists, living in thirty different countries documents the emergence of a new wave of botanical artists and the renaissance of their art form. She holds a number of distinguished posts with leading organisations in the horticulural and botanical art worlds. She has written several books on botanical art (see below)
2) Martyn Rix is the editor of Curtis's Botanical Magazine, which is the longest running botanical periodical in the world.
3) Kew Publishing is the publishing house of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. It produces over 20 new titles each year and aims to inspire and educate people about our work and to make available Kew’s unique heritage and resources, knowledge and cutting edge expertise to as wide an audience as possible throughout the world.

4) is the internet retailing website of Kew Publishing - supplying books published at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew to customers around the world.



  1. Going to have to add that to my wish list!

  2. Coral Guest's study pages are enchanting, aren't they Katherine. I could look at them all day. So inspiring. These last two posts are wonderful. I've only just begun to explore them.

  3. Dave - you won't regret it!

    Robyn - thanks - and I totally agree about Coral Guest's website.


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