Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Botanicals - Environmental Expressions in Art - a review

Last month I was given a tour of the Alisa and Isaac M. Sutton Collection - currently on view as Botanicals - Environmental Expressions in Art the Shirley Sherwood Gallery at Kew Gardens until 19 January 2014.  I very much recommend a visit to the exhibition for all botanical artists interested in seeing the artwork selected by a major collector of botanical art.

Part of the Alisa and Isaac M. Sutton Collection in the Main Gallery
I guess most people in botanical art have heard about the wonderful collection of botanical art amassed by Shirley Sherwood - and latterly the Gallery which was built with the support of her family in Kew Gardens.

Isaac M Sutton with his favourite painting in his collection
The Sutton Dogwood, Gouache on paper (2001) by Katie Lee
a commissioned painting of the dogwood which flowers at his home in Brooklyn.
He's planning a series of commissions by different artists to paint the tree at different times of the year
What you might not know is that there another botanical art collection which is also becoming very significant.

Dr Sherwood has been collecting botanical art since 1990 and now has some 851 paintings in her collection.

Isaac M. Sutton saw an exhibition of her collection in New York in 1998 and was "blown away" by the art. He started buying paintings and used her book accompanying the first exhibition as a guide to what to collect.  He now has some 270 paintings - and added two more with works from the two Sues (see 'Black and White in Colour' at Kew Gardens - a review). I understand this is now the largest private collection of botanical art in the USA.  It includes examples of artwork by leading botanical artists from all over the work.

This exhibition is based on a selection of his works which have been previously exhibited at the Hunt Institute, Pittsburgh, and at the New York Botanic Gardens.

Inspired to collect: The Alisa and Isaac M. Sutton Collection is an interview with Isaac M Sutton on the Kew Gardens website

I greatly enjoyed listening to Mr Sutton's stories of what a serious collector has to do to secure an artwork!

He has a very clear view that botanical art should be collected to live with and he hangs his on the walls of his home. He also pointed out that a private collector has a very real advantage over institutional collections in the sense that the decisions he makes about what to purchase doesn't have to fulfil any criteria other than his own.   His aim is to have paintings which appeal to him since he intends to hang a painting in his home. He wants to see technical excellence in terms of both the botany and the painting. He's also interested in paintings which contribute important records of current plant life. Finally he's very pleased if a painting has a composition which attracts the eye.

This personal set of criteria had led to some purchases of some stunning works which beckon you to come and look at them from the other side of the gallery. At the same time he has acquired some very fine small paintings of exquisite detail. I also particularly liked the way he has purchased multiple paintings of the same plant (e.g. the snow eucalyptus) and multiple studies (e.g. those by Elaine Musgrave)  which is not something one often sees in exhibitions of botanical art.

Having met Mr Sutton in the afternoon, I had the pleasure of introducing him to Sandra Armitage, the President of the Society of Botanical Artists at the evening reception for the Private View.  I think there might just be an invitation to come to a future exhibition of the SBA winging its way to Mr Sutton in the future!

You can also see the works in the Collection on its dedicated Facebook Page.  Artists who have paintings in the collection include the following
Click the link to their websites in their name to see more of their artwork. 
Click the link in the name of the plant or flower to see its image on Facebook.

  • Beverley Allen - the bamboo is absolutely amazing. It has a wonderful double page spread in the catalogue which conveys something of the impact of this painting
Beverley Allen flew in from Australia for the Private View
standing in front of her painting of bamboo
Bambusa Vulgaris 'Striata' (Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney) 2005
watercolour on paper approx. 29 inches by 66inches

(Left) Passiflora alata by Lizzie Sanders
(Right) Kniphofia uvaria Red Hot Poker by Anita Barley (watercolour on paper)
(Left) Snow Gum Eucalyptus niphophilia - flowering fruiting branch by David MacKay
(Centre) Leaf Study by Elaine Musgrave (watercolour and pencil on paper)
(Right) Snow Gum Eucalyptus niphophilia - details of flowers, leaves, seedlings and fruits by David MacKay
  • Hillary Parker's amazing Pumpkin Vine (Cucurbita pepo maxima) was apparently discovered under a tarpaulin! This painting featured on the cover of the 2005 American Society of Botanical Artists Eighth Annual International Juried Botanical Art Exhibit at the Horticultural Society of New York. It also enjoys a great double page fold-out spread in the catalogue
"Botanical artists spend a great deal of time observing and this observation is taken to its zenith in Hillary Parker's epic painting, Pumpkin Vine. To capture buds, flowers, early fruit and mature fruit, this masterpiece had to have been composed over a lengthy period of time in order to achieve its meticulous,
gestural perfection.
gestural perfection."
-Jodie V. Jacobson, New York Horticultural Society Curator
  • Celia Rosser - a pencil and watercolour study of Banksia rosserae (2004).  Celia spent 25 years producing a complete set of paintings of all known Banksias.  This one was discovered after she had finished and hence was named in her honour - see Celia Rosser's Banksias
  • Carol Woodin - there are four works in the exhibition. She paints in watercolour on vellum stretched over board
There's a book which goes with the exhibition which you can obtain from the Gallery. According to Amazon I have a book which I'd have to pay around £150 to buy new via Amazon - so I'd scoot down to Kew and get a copy now if you want a record of a great collection - and what a major collector likes!


  1. Thank you Very Much for this article- great insight.

  2. Marvelous review--I read it all and followed all of the links! Thanks for the interesting information.


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