Thursday, August 06, 2015

Review: 'London's Secret Garden' Exhibition at the Chelsea Physic Garden

This week I visited the London's Secret Garden exhibition which celebrates the 20th anniversary of the Florilegium Society at the Chelsea Physic Garden.

a corner of the exhibition - with the exhibition banner
This is a very long post and comprises:
  • a review of the exhibition - highlighting work by specific artists
  • an account of how the Chelsea Physic Garden Florilegium Society works - and how to become a member
  • the key facts about the Chelsea Physic Garden - and why it's a great place to visit (between 1 April to 31 October).

'London's Secret Garden' (4th - 26th August 2015) 

The exhibition includes 75 artworks by 73 artist members past and present. Most are watercolour paintings however there is also pen and ink and the use of graphite and coloured pencils.

The exhibition opened on Tuesday and runs until Wednesday 26th August and can be viewed between 11am and 4pm. Entrance to the exhibition is free with entry to the garden.

A number of the paintings are also included in a book Botanical Illustration from Chelsea Physic Garden by Andrew Brown (Past Chairman of the Society) -  which has been produced to commemorate the 20th Anniversary. (I'll be writing a separate review of this). A similar book was produced for the tenth anniversary and now sells for enormous prices - if you can get hold of a copy!

Ribes rubrum by Sally Vincent and  Fuschia procumbens by Mayumi Hashi
The painting on the left is the one chosen for the front cover of the book
The book focuses in particular on angiosperms (plants with flowers and seeds enclosed in fruits).

Views of the exhibition

I have to emphasise that there's an awful lot I could say about this exhibition - and one of the reasons for the delay in posting has been the need to keep editing myself!

My main recommendation to all botanical artists is to go and see this exhibition.

For all those who love plants and flowers it's also very much seeing - both in terms of what you will learn about the plants and because it's an exhibition which has grown out of the garden in which you can see it.

The overall standard of artwork overall is very good and to my mind it's a better exhibition than the last one one in 2013. Some of them are really excellent and that's unsurprising given many of the artists have been painting botanical art for many years and have won medals for it!

The exhibition is hung on grey exhibition panels (like the ones used by the RHS). Below you can see some views of the exhibition and its artwork.

Watercolour paintings by Amanda Ward, Janet Callender and a drawing by John Bell
Janet's painting of the foxglove tree from China is on the back cover of the book.
I was trying to discern a pattern to the way the different plants were hung but couldn't see one. That said, the exhibition is well hung from an aesthetic perspective with some nice use of mirroring on occasion.

Using a consistent frame for most of the work also lends coherence and consistency to the display which means that one's eyes always focus on the works and are never distracted by the frame. Top spots have also been used so that works are well lit.

Those botanical artists submitting work to RHS Exhibitions might want to note that Gillian Barlow, the Chair of the Picture Committee is also Deputy Chairman of the Florilegium Society and has a painting in the show (and the book)!

Top row - paintings by Sue Williams (Fellow), Doreen Jones and a very scientific painting by Julia Trickey
Bottom row is the painting by Gillian Barlow
This view includes the painting (top row, second from left)
by Dugald Graham-Campbell, Chairman of the Chelsea Physic Garden Florilegium Society 
Paintings by Penny Stenning and  Jenavora Seawright, a graphite drawing by Guy William Eves
and a painting by Founder Member Yvonne Glenister Hammond
The leaves of two different plants mirror one another
Paintings (l to r)  are by Joanna Craig-McFeely, Maggie Fitzpatrick and Penny Gould
The room the exhibition is held in is very well lit with windows on both sides. While great for some purposes, when I first saw the exhibition (early in the morning) I found I had a problem with the very bright sunlight coming through the windows. However after a morning cup of tea and making my notes I went back up  to find the answers to some queries I had and found that the then cloudy sky made it much easier to see the work.  So - if possible aim for a cloudy day and/or the middle of the day - you'll see the work better!

If there was one criticism I have of the exhibition, it is that a few of the artists have been a little timid about demonstrating the full use of the tonal range which is so very necessary when creating a strong sense of structure and volume.  Botanical art does not have to be 'pale and interesting' and this was demonstrated very well by the most effective paintings in the exhibition.

There's also  an article about the exhibition in 'The Lady' (on pages 86-88 of the 24 July edition) which has excellent large scale reproductions of plants in the exhibition. Do take a look if you can get a copy. There is a digital edition - but it appears you have to subscribe for three months rather for individual copies.

Article in 'The Lady' Magazine


When visiting exhibitions I like to try and highlight artwork - and artists - who have impressed.  The descriptions of the plants underneath the paintings are those from the exhibition.

I loved the nettle of Nicki Tullett (whose Cavolo Nero I much admired in the last exhibition). Her paintings of leaves continues to impress.  Plus I don't think I've ever seen anybody paint a nettle before!

Urticaria dioica (watercolour) by Nicki Tullett
Nettles have many uses in traditional medicine and are highly regarded in Germany for the treatment for arthritis. Young leaves can be consumed as a vegetable, in coupe and as a flavouring for cheese. The stem contains weavable fibre.
Another work which impressed was a very lovely alium by Jeni Neale.  Part of being very impressed is due to the fact that I keep drawing alliums and am very familiar with the challenges they present! I'm also very very grateful for the information about the plant!  Jeni is now a retired fellow of the Chelsea Physic Garden Florilegium Society and was Chairman of the Birmingham Society of Botanical Artists from 2005-2008 - and is known as botanicaljen on Twitter
Allium cepa 'Long Red Florence' (watercolour) by Jeni Neale
The compounds of onion which irritate the eyes, sulphoxides, are extremely toxic to dogs, cats and guinea pigs which cannot digest them. Death occurs from rupture of the membranes of their red blood cells.
Two works which, for me, clearly demonstrated how stages of plants development and specific aspects of growth can be included within a painting in neat and informative way were the works by Pauline Dean and Sara Harrington.
Taxus baccata (watercolour) by Pauline Dean (died 2007)
Yew is a flowerless plant which produces seeds unenclosed by a fruit wall. The juicy red tissue on the outside of the seed is a structure derived friom the seed coat. All parts of the plant except for this red tissue are extremely toxic. Taxine derived from yew is used to treat breast cancer. Avicenna in 1021 made a preparation of yew to regulate the heart beat. Its mode of action was only elucidated in the late twentieth century
I also particularly valued the information provided about Pauline's plant - I had no idea!

Note how the design of the additional information complements the shape and line used for the composition of the plant in Sara Harrington's painting of a Polygnatum and creates a very balanced and grounded image.

Polygonatum x hybridum (watercolour) by Sara Harrington
Solomon's seal has thick rhizomes. Those of other species have been used for food and as a treatment for bruises.
I very much liked Mary Ellen Taylor's graphite drawing of a pelargonium. I loved the fact that she delighted in showing its growth stages in a very different way.

Pelargonium carnosum (graphite) by Mary Ellen Taylor
This pelagonium has thick succulent stems to withstand drought in its arid South African habitat
The most impressive painting in the exhibition for me was the one very wisely chosen to be the motif for the exhibition. This is the painting of the Curcubita ficifolia by Kimiko Kambe-Gang, a Japanese artist who I understand lives in London. 

Interestingly Kimiko is a very new member of the Society and so the painting is not in the book. Nevertheless when Shirley Sherwood was visiting, the portfolio - including this image - was lying on a table. Dr Sherwood walked past - and then stopped, walked back and had a jolly good look at it! I'm not in the least surprised - it deserves close study!
Curcubita ficifolia by Kimiko Kambe-GangThe image motif for this exhibition

Some suggestions

I have three suggestions that I hope the both the Physic Garden and Society will consider.

Website: It's a great pity that the Florilegium Society does not have a website of its own. It would be so helpful in disseminating information about its purpose and achievements to date - and also give a platform to the artists associated with it. It could also then make a virtual version of its exhibitions and a digital version of its archive available to a wider public in due course.

Exhibition Labels: I'd very much have preferred to see the very short and fascinating descriptions of the plants underneath the title of each painting on the label. Nobody likes having to search through a listing to find the right plant and the right artist when it's so much easier to match the explanation to the plant when it's contained within the label on the wall or stand.  This is a practice which both the RHS and the Society of Botanical Artists has been using with some considerable success for some time now - and it's a practice which I commend to the organisers of the next exhibition. (I gather this was very much the original intention of the Society but it didn't happen for some reason).  This is after all art with a purpose - not just an aesthetic.

Future exhibitions: A 20th anniversary exhibition is a slightly different event to a normal exhibition. The anniversary is the celebration and that dictates what's included.

My personal preference for future exhibitions would be to see more strongly themed displays on a more regular basis - with a more marked tie-in between the exhibition and the garden.

For example:
  • I found myself wanting to know where the plants were in the garden and would have really liked sheet of A4 with a map of the garden and a key which linked paintings in the exhibition to the current location of the plants. I would then have visited the garden after seeing the exhibition and had the pleasure of seeing the plants themselves.  
  • The garden itself offers all sorts of scope for themes in terms of its structure, organisation and order beds.
  • The Society focused on the medicinal plants in the garden in an exhibition Inner Beauty? Paintings of Medicinal Plants at the newly opened Shirley Sherwood Gallery for Botanical Art at Kew Gardens in 2008, and at Brooklyn Botanic Garden, New York, USA in 2009 - but it's never had such an exhibition actually at the garden.  Since then the space given to the medicinal plants in the garden - which interest so very many of the visitors - has been doubled and a new medicinal plants garden opened in 2014 to make these more accessible to visitors. I'd love to see a future exhibition focus on the tradition of the Herbals used by apothecaries and the types of plants it included - but this does mean it will also need helpful labels! 

The Chelsea Physic Garden Florilegium Society

The Chelsea Physic Garden Florilegium Society was formed in 1995, with the primary aim of recording in paintings and drawings the plants growing in the Physic Garden.
The Chelsea Physic Garden Florilegium Society was co-founded in 1995 by Margaret King and Wendy Page.

Margaret King's painting of Solanum melongea (aubergine) is bottom right.
She used the convention of the box to contain the image with the aubergine breaking the constraint.
Other paintings (l to r) are by ?, Christine Battle and Sarah Gould (painting on vellum)
The tutor Anne Marie Evans and her botanical art students also helped get the society off the ground. She had a contemporary perspective on a Florilegium Society. She wrote:
whereas the Florilegia of the 17th Century were created to portray the beauty and novelty of those plants brought back from the expanding colonies, the modern Florilegium may be seen as a conservation tool, instrumental in recording for posterity collections of plants within a chosen garden.’ 
What's interesting about having a Florilegium Society associated with this particular Garden is that its history and plants are also associated with the great tradition of the Herbal and the use of plants by Apothecaries - hence the fascinating explanations about the origins and uses of some of the plants (which I'd like to see right next to the paintings!).

Note: You can read more about notable Florilegia and Herbals in botanical art history  on my website Botanical Art and Artists. It also contains a page devoted to all Current Florilegium Projects.

Joining the Florilegium Society

The Society maintains a register of 60 members. It's a membership with a personal commitment. The expectation is that a member will produce a minimum of one artwork a year to add to the Archive. That said it's understood that sometimes people will have problems with illness or other commitments which make submission very difficult. However if a member fails to submit at least one work in three years they're invited to consider whether they have the time and the capacity to make the necessary commitment.  People do leave so it's always worthwhile enquiring whether there's a vacancy or a waiting list to join.

The artists have the benefit of the support from the Head Gardener and the gardening team when it comes to developing new artwork. All the plant material which is portrayed in artwork has been grown in the garden. Sometimes herbarium specimens are prepared to help provide the material required.

To find out more about how to become a Painting Member or an Associate Member you should contact Dugald Graham-Campbell, Chairman of the Chelsea Physic Garden Florilegium Society. His email is on the Florilegium page of the Garden's website (down the bottom).

Selection of work for the Archive

The work submitted by artists for inclusion in the archive is vetted by an independent panel which includes two botanists from Kew. The idea is to ensure that the paintings meet requirements as to an accurate representation of a plant. There's no requirement to make it 'strictly botanical' (as per strict botanical illustrations) however they must contain no mistakes or confusion as to what has been included or excluded.

The members have a lot to choose from. There are some 5,000 different types of plants in the garden! To date, over the course of the last 20 years, some 660 artworks have been developed and selected for inclusion in the archive - of which some 145 are in monochrome.

All the work selected for the Archive is donated by the artist who does not get a payment. However the copyright is retained by the artist - with the understanding that it can be licenced by the Garden to generate funds to help support the Garden and allow it to continue to thrive.

Products available to purchase from the shop.
If you visit the exhibition you'll be able to see some of the commercial products produced as a spin-off from the exhibition. These include a selection of prints, bookmarks, magnets and a silk scarf which I found to be both tasteful and well made and very reasonably priced (I bought the book and the magnets and may be coming back for a print!)

Past exhibitions

Unfortunately the Society does not exhibit every year. Maybe this will change as the archive grows? Past exhibitions by the Society are:
  • 2013: Treasures from a Hidden Garden: Plant portraits by the Florilegium Society was shown in 2013 at the Garden (the link embedded in the title is to my review of it) and again at one of the RHS Exhibitions
  • 2008/9: Inner Beauty? Paintings of Medicinal Plants shown at Kew and Brooklyn Botanic Garden
  • 2005: Apothecaries’ Artists, Paintings of Plants Cultivated in the Physic Garden

The Chelsea Physic Garden

The Garden has existed in Chelsea since 1673 and was originally an Apothecaries Garden. It's also Grade 1 Listed, the oldest botanic garden in London and has the oldest rock garden in Europe which enjoys Grade II listed status!

Over time it also subsequently became one of the most important centres of botany and plant exchange in the world.

Originally it focused on the sorts of plants associated with medicinal remedies. Hans Sloane purchased the 4 acres and leased it to the Society of Apothecaries for £5 a year in perpetuity. The contract for the land also stipulated that if they wanted to give it up for any reason that it had to continue via other organisations. This has saved the garden from being sold or used for development on a number of occasions. That said it's also had a troubled history at times and had to be rescued first of all in 1899 by the City Parochial Foundation and then again in 1984 when a new trust was set up to look after the garden. It was out of that new start for the garden that the Florilegium Society was also started.

The current charitable aims of the Chelsea Physic Garden are
(1) the advancement of public education with particular reference to the promotion of the sciences of botany, plant physiology, vegetable physiology and pharmacology and the conservation of plants and their environment and their related biochemistry; and 
(2) the promotion of research into all aspects of the sciences and other matters referred to in the last-preceding sub-clause and the publication of useful results of all such research.
Back wall walk in the  Chelsea Physic Garden Glass House
Chelsea Physic Garden carries out its charitable mission for the public benefit by:
  • maintaining documented plant collections in labelled and interpreted displays in a historic botanic garden
  • providing programmes of educational activities, publications and events
  • demonstrating the development of the science and practice of horticulture, botany and related disciplines through the historical role of the garden
  • promoting the importance of the conservation of plants and the natural environment.
The Garden has a warm microclimate which makes it kind to a number of plants which need more tender conditions to thrive. There are over 100 different kinds of trees in the garden including trees rarely seen in Britain from the largest outdoor fruiting olive tree in Britain to the world’s most northerly outdoor grapefruit tree. Other exotic non-native varieties include pomegranates, gingkos, mulberries and eucalyptus.  A new 'World Woodland Garden' opened in April this year. It's divided into three geographic regions - the Americas, Europe and East Asia.

Besides the Order Beds, it also has glasshouses (to the left of the entrance) which hold a collection of tropical and sub-tropical species - and I myself sat and drew plants in the Victorian Cool Fernery.

If you've never visited I can very much recommend a visit. Apart from anything else the shop has an excellent selection of books about plants and the cafe has some very excellent refreshments. You also can't quite believe you're near the centre of London!

Botanical artists should also note that the garden is a short walk from the wonderful art shop Green & Stone at 259 Kings Road, Chelsea - which is the only art shop I've known to be able to produce proportional dividers when asked!

The garden is located at 66 Royal Hospital Road and is open between 1 April and 61 October but closed on Saturday and Monday each week between- except for Bank Holidays. The garden is open between 11am and 6pm with late openings on Wednesdays.  Admission for adults is £9.90.

See also my 2008 post about A visit to the Chelsea Physic Garden.

Note: You can read more about Botanical Art and Artists find out about other botanical art exhibitions - around the world - on my website

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