Treasures of Botanical Art – Book Review

When I first saw ‘Treasures of Botanical Art‘ I was at once fascinated, curious and excited all at the same time. This is another publication in a long list of superb publications from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and one you will want to treasure.

In the book, authors, Dr Shirley Sherwood and Martyn Rix reveal the history of botanical painting, its beauty and science, with works from two renowned collections and over one hundred significant artists, including works by well-known artists the Bauer brothers, Redouté, Ehret, Fitch, Lilian Snelling and Margaret Mee as well as many lesser known artists.

Here we have a combination of two renowned art collections – the Art Collection of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, dating from the 1400s and the Shirley Sherwood Collection, documenting the emergence of a new wave of botanical painters and a growing interest in their art form.(pictured left: Francis Bauer, Strelitzia augusta.)

In the Preface, Dr Shirley points out that in 2018, The Shirley Sherwood Collection counted its one millionth visitor through the Gallery. This latest state of the art building at Kew has been designed to show watercolours in ideal conditions and is the world’s first public gallery dedicated to classic and contemporary botanical art. Dr Sherwood also points out that the Marianne North gallery, in contrast, is an extraordinary example of Victorian style, unchanged since the 1880s – she made a condition of her gift that the paintings could not be rearranged in any way and so it remains today.

There is a superb overview of the Shirely Sherwood Collection by Dr Shirley that also includes a preview of Botanical Art Today. The enduring importance of botanical painting is covered by Professor Sir Peter Crane FRS who points out that botanical painting remains as important today as it was three hundred years ago.

The Kew Collection is introduced by Dr Martyn Rix who points out among the oldest items in the library at Kew are some of the printed books, dating from the fifteenth century, and the early years of printing, including illustrated herbals. With increasing wealth in northern Europe and more sophisticated printing, the Florilegium appeared – a celebration of ornamental flowers – the result of the excitement felt by gardeners for the exotic flowers of the time, tulips, irises, opium poppies etc. He goes on to explore the development of botanical painting, and the influences that had led to Kew’s world-renowned collection. (pictured right: Company School, artist and date unknown, Sunflower).

Following the explanatory sections above, the book is divided into The Age of Antiquity, covering plants such as herbals and mandrakes, poppies, striped tulips and thistles; The Age of Discovery, covering climbers, oaks, roses, succulents and proteas and finally The Age of the Exotic, covering lilies, grass trees, bromeliads, mushrooms and ferns etc.

The photography and printing reproduction of each plate is superb with each illustration marked as to which Collection it is in and a description. Over 200 stunning botanical illustrations are showcased in this one book and the informative text on the origin, relevance and history of botanic art is a joy to read.

Biographies of over 120 artists are also provided at the end of the book revealing the historical and international background of the genre.

Dr Shirley Sherwood travels extensively and has been collecting contemporary botanical drawings since 1990. Her comprehensive collection includes work by artists living in over 30 different countries and is arguably the most important private collection of 20th century botanical art in the world.

(above) Simon Verelst – Tulips)

Martyn Rix is a renowned horticulturalist, author of many books and editor of Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, published at Kew. He is also co-author of Flora Japonica (Kew Publishing 2016).

This book is a pure joy to read, browse through and wonder at. It is informative and an excellent record of some of the world’s most outstanding botanical art.

Published by Kew Publishing in hardback, ‘Treasures of Botanical Art’ by Shirley Sherwood and Martyn Rix is available from April 2019 priced £20. It will make an outstanding and welcome gift to art lovers and horticulturists alike.

Review copy kindly supplied by the publisher.

Picture credits: All photographic plates are strictly ©Kew Publications