Friday, August 01, 2014

In praise of the older artist - Mary Anderson Grierson

It would appear that one of the perks of working for the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew for a long time is you get a bench outside the Palm House on your retirement or death. I came across a bench for Mary Anderson Grierson on Tuesday and looked her up when I got back home.

Hylocereus Undatus, night blooming cereus, 1985
pencil, ink and color wash
56 x 34 cm. (22 x 13.4 in.)
by the late Mary Anderson Grierson
Her obituary - she died age 99 - in the Telegraph provides all sorts of incentives for those of less tender years who aspire to do well as a botanical artist.

First of all she only started to work as a 'proper' botanical artist in middle age - at the age of 48.

Prior to this she worked, during the war, on analysing analysing and interpreting aerial photographs. It was during the war that she started painting wild flowers for pleasure.

After the war she worked for Hunting Aerosurveys producing contour maps which naturally required a lot of precision. They sent her to do a course in pen and ink drawing course at the Field Studies Centre at Flatford Mill.  She subsequently did a number of courses there with painter and illustrator John Nash, younger brother of the great war artist Paul Nash.  He was much interested in nature and drawing the countryside.

Mary Grierson then applied for a post organising exhibitions at Kew in 1960. However, having seen her portfolio of drawings they decided she'd be much better employed as an Artist in the Herbarium. Thus it was that she embarked on the second half of her life - as a professional botanical artist - having had no tuition except in skills related to drawing and painting.

In 1966 she received her first gold medal for flower painting from the Royal Horticultural Society. She subsequently received another four plus the Veitch Memorial Medal of the RHS, and later their Victoria Medal of Honour.

While working for Kew she was also commissioned to illustrate a series of volumes on Orchidaceae - published in 1973. She also illustrated The Country Life of Orchids, An English Florilegium, and a number of monographs including one on Hellebores.

She continued to work after she retired in 1972, age 60, and was then much in demand. She managed to fit in quite a few projects!
  • She began painting species of plants in Hawaii in 1973 - leading to the publication of A Hawaiian florilegium: botanical portraits from paradise in 1996. (The lovely thing about projects after you retire is you don't have to rush to finish them in order to make your mark!)
  • She was commissioned to produce illustrations for "Hedgerows of England" and "Coastal Plants of England". She proceeded to travel the length and breadth of the country to find the plants. The subsequent associated exhibitions were sell-outs.
  • She produced a major series of tulip drawings for the Van Tubergen Nurseries at Haarlem. These were subsequently bought by the Library at Kew in 1992
  • plus she continued to produce illustrations for Curtis's Botanical Magazine.

You can see a number of her illustrations which sold at auction on the Internet. Her work is now included in the collections of The British Museum, The Natural History Museum, as well as at Kew.
For me, the uplifting bit about this story is that she achieved much of this after reaching 60 - having only turned professional age 48. Which just goes to show that a whole new world can open up to you as you get older - if you are open to the possibilities of what life has to offer - and hone your skills in drawing and painting!



  1. Thank you for sharing this - what an inspiration for those of us just finding our passion in later years !

  2. What a lovely article and how encouraging for artists, especially us female artists, for whom the bloom of youth was a long time ago!

  3. Thank you for this encouraging post! I just saw photos of the poppies at the Tower of London - am hoping you will go and give an in-person report. Thanks for all your posts, hope book is all finished!

  4. Thank you for sharing this. It's inspiring.

  5. What a wonderful place to work. Or so it seems. And the benches are such a sweet and compassionate gesture ~ something of a fading characteristic in places of employment in our times. I loved getting to know Mary. Her story is a true inspiration for all of us!

    Thanks so much for sharing it.

  6. What an inspiring life. It reminds me a little of Marianne North at Kew. She only started painting seriously at 40 when her father died and she was free to travel the world. I first heard about her on Blue Peter and although I'd been to Kew many times had never visited her gallery. When I did it was a revelation.Wall to wall paintings! And all achieved after she was 40.


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