Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Exhibition review: The Art of Plant Evolution

Exhibition: The Art of Plant Evolution,
The Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art, Kew Gardens (until January 3 2010

Amanita muscaria by Alexander Viazmensky
Shirley Sherwood Collection

There have been a variety of exhibitions commemorating Darwin's 20th birthday celebrations this year and many have focused on evolution. I recently went to see The Art of Plant Evolution at Kew Gardens. It manages to neatly combine art and science by displaying botanical paintings in the latest evolutionary sequence revealed by recent DNA analysis.

I learned a lot about botany while going round the exhibition and subsequently reading the catalogue! Although I think I need to keep rereading until it all sinks in! It made me wonder how many botanical artists and illustrators are aware the range of information contained in this exhibition. I'd certainly recommend it to anybody interested in the botany as well as the art.

If you think about botanical art you frequently think of flowers - however there's a lot more to botanical art than just flowers (as the images in this post illustrate).

The exhibition uses a very useful 'tree of plant evolution' to explain the various relationships between different plants. The main plant groups covered by the exhibition are as follows:
  • fungae
  • algae
  • mosses
  • monilophytes - such as ferns
  • Gymnosperms - those with a naked seed
  • Angiosperms - 300,000 species of flowering plants. The latter includes the basal angiosperms - minor groups (the "does not fit anywhere else" plants); and the basal angiosperms - monocots (60 species with asingle seedling leaf and floral parts on whorls of three)
  • Eudicots - identified by DNA sequence and have pollen grains with distinct grooves - early diverging eudicots; core eudicots (minor groups); core eudicots (asterids); core eudicots (rosids);
I was absolutely amazed at the variety of plants contained within one plant grouping. Who knew that mistletoe and gunnera are part of the same plant group? Or that the plant which produces black peppercorns and magnolias are both members of the minor group of basal angiosperms?

Pomegranates Punica granatum by Ann Schweizer
Shirley Sherwood Collection
Each species chosen is illustrated with a painting from the Shirley Sherwood Collection. The exhibition displays 50 orders of plants in 118 families and features over 130 paintings by 84 contemporary artists from countries such as China, Australia, Japan, Brazil and the UK. Paintings cross the plant world providing everything from seaweed to daisies, including mosses, ferns, conifers and flowering plants.

Botanical art is combined with over 20 plant fossils on loan by courtesy of the Trustees of the Natural History Museum. These include fossil fern fronds, leaves of cycads, the Wollemi pine, ginkgoes and poplar, together with tiny walnuts and peas in a pod. Some of the fossils date from over 370 million years ago

Pseudotsuga menziesi
by Brigid Edwards

Shirley Sherwood Collection

One of the aspects of the exhibition which I particularly enjoyed was being introduced to a lot of very good botanical artists whose work I'd never seen before. New names to me included:
  • Jean Claude Buytaert (Belgium) - a full time sculptor, painter and graphic artist and past Professor of Botanical art living in Antwerp. His work is a wonderful dry point etching of a pickaback plant
  • Ann Schweizer is a South African artist whose pomegranates were gorgeous as well as botanical art
  • Alexander Viazmensky, a Russian artist born in Leningrad who speciailises in painting mushrooms in watercolour. I loved the way there were 'specks of earth' painted on to the paper. You can see him doing a workshop on painting mushrooms on the Botanical Illustration blog of the Botanical Art and Illustration at Denver Botanic Gardens.
  • Alvaro Nunes - a Brazilian artist with several stunning pieces in the exhibition and book.
  • Mariko Imai - a Japanese artist whose painting of a pitcher plant is superb
Nepenthes truncata by Mariko Imai
Shirley Sherwood Collection
In addition, there are works by artists which are better known to me and members of the SBA.
  • Coral Guest has a stunning painting of a Lilium Regale at full size - as is usual with Coral - it's not unlike this one - but bigger!
  • Helga Crouch who is a founder member of the SBA works in a very effective but understated way and a feeling for seasons. The exhibition includes her study of mistletoe on vellum.
  • I always love anything produced by Brigid Edwards or Susannah Blaxill
Memorabilia of Darwin - The exhibition also contains memorabilia of Darwin who was a great friend and colleague of Kew's first directors, Sir William and Sir Joseph Hooker. Many of his letters and other artefacts are stored in Kew's Archives. A selection of Darwin items are showcased, including a letter dated 11 April 1833 , taken from a collection of letters which Darwin sent to his mentor, Prof. John Stevens Henslow, narrating Darwin 's adventures and discoveries in Patagonia whilst he was on the famous Beagle voyage. Visitors can also see a rare sketch done by Darwin of an orchid specimen that he collected in the field.

The Art of Plant Evolution - the book

The Art of Plant Evolution
(published by Kew Publishing) is the book produced to accompany the exhibition. It publishes in the USA in February 2010. Authors Dr Shirley Sherwood and Dr W. John Kress of the Smithsonian combine science with botanical art to provide readers with a sense of how contemporary scientific discoveries are changing our understanding of plant relationships. It features illustrations of all the paintings in the exhibition plus a number of very helpful graphical art explanations of plant classifications (eg a tree of plant evolution) which clearly shows current understanding of how different orders of plant families are related.

See my Book Review: The Art of Plant Evolution on Making A Mark Reviews.....

Entry to the exhibition and Gallery is free and included with a ticket to the Gardens. Opening times during the Winter months are detailed below.

Note: The Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art - The Shirley Sherwood Gallery at Kew Gardens, opened in Spring 2008 and is the first public gallery in the world dedicated to botanical art. The gallery, designed by leading architects Walters and Cohen, exhibits precious works of art from the collections of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and Dr Shirley Sherwood


  • The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew - my information site about Kew Gardens - it makes it easier to find the links to useful information on the Kew website!
  • Winter Opening times - 9.30am-4.15pm
  • Admission to Kew Gardens includes free entry to all Galleries, Glasshouses, and the Rhizotron and Xstrata Treetop Walkway. Adults £13, Concessions £11, FREE for children under 17 (accompanied by an adult).


  1. Thank you for this post and all the links... sure wish I could see this exhibit. My visit to the gallery and Kew was the highlight of my visit to London last year.... and I first learned about the gallery from your blog. Should have thanked you a long time ago. Thanks.

  2. My pleasure Carole - it's always good to know when people visit as a result of a blog post.

  3. Hello Katherine,
    great post with interesting, almost overwhelming content and super artwork!
    Thanks a lot!

  4. This looks like a beautiful and fascinating exhibit. I wish I could get over there to see it. One quibble - the image labeled Phyllostachys virdis is actually Pomegranate - Punica granatum.

  5. Kew gardens is now definitely on top of my list for my pre-xmas London-trip thanks to Katherine. I am also amazed with your whole emporium and am a devoted follower of all your publications. It has so opened up for many good reads, tons of knowledge and inspiration, both as an artist and art teacher. Thank you!


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