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Botanical art: the celebrated Shirley Sherwood collection

Regine Hagedorn
Regine Hagedorn, 'Roses (2): Rosa spp. 2001 Credit: The Shirley Sherwood Collection (Kew, £35)

Botanical illustration is best understood as an art in the service of science. Plants hover on a blank page, painted to scale with the delicate precision of a high-definition photograph. The aim is to reveal the most identifiable features with an everlasting freshness and colour – the dried herbarium specimen could never hope to compete. Dr Shirley Sherwood’s collection, amassed over three decades, is celebrated in a new book The Shirley Sherwood Collection: Modern Masterpieces in Botanical Art (see offer below). This includes traditional botanical illustrations from artists of the 18th-century “Golden Age”, such as Francis Bauer, but its main focus is on contemporary artists, from around the world, who have expanded the very idea of flower painting. While painting flowers is usually dismissed as a secondary art form, Dr Sherwood’s collection reveals how – and why – botanical art has become increasingly popular.

Dr Sherwood, born in 1933, has played a pivotal role in energising this most traditional of art forms. As an adventurous nine-year-old with a new magnifying glass, Sherwood discovered her forensic fascination with the natural world. This was affirmed four years later in Pakistan. She recalls how, just one year after partition, she gazed upon the war-torn but flower-studded slopes of Kashmir. This made such an impression that, as a somewhat precocious 13-year-old, she took her pressed specimens to the herbarium at Kew. Unsurprisingly, she would go on to study botany at Oxford.

Pandora Sellars, ‘Nymphaea nouchali var. caerula’ [1995] Credit: Shirley Sherwood Collection

It was not until the Nineties that Dr Sherwood acquired her first botanical painting by the British artist Pandora Sellars. It was a complex composition showing the orchid Laelia tenebrosa emerging from a textural weave of tropical foliage – achieving more than a conventional illustration through its energy and movement. Sellars died two years ago at the age of 80 but left behind some distinctive works. Her blue water lily Nymphaea nouchali var. caerulea adorns the cover of Sherwood’s first book, the catalogue for the 1996 exhibition Contemporary Botanical Artists, at Kew. Leading Australian botanical artist Beverley Allen – who also features in Dr Sherwood’s collection – happily admits that it was Sellars’s water lily that got her into painting.

Dr Sherwood claims that, at this time, she “had absolutely no idea, or intention, of starting a collection”. However, it did not take long for the collecting bug to bite. As a child she had amassed assorted natural objects but now with the means to invest she chose to support contemporary artists. Most collectors of botanical art focus on historic images but to Dr Sherwood it seemed foolish to compete with the already outstanding collections held by institutions such as the Bodleian Library in Oxford. She was also repeatedly astonished by the quality of the work she saw exhibited at Kew and shows of the Royal Horticultural Society. Almost 30 years later her collection has swelled to more than 1,000 works.

One artist who is well represented is Coral Guest, who trained at the Chelsea School of Art before transferring into the cloistered world of botanical painting where her work has pushed boundaries. 'The Phenology Cabinet of the Incandescent Petal Magenta Cultivars Series I of Paeonia lactiflora from 19th century France' [2006-14] is the somewhat convoluted title of a large painting by Guest, which took eight years to complete and represents the colour range of 11 different magenta-coloured cultivars of Paeonia lactiflora.

Coral Guest, 'The Phenology Cabinet of the Incandescent Petal' (left) and Kate Nessler ‘At the Edge, Vitis labrusca’ (right) Credit: The Shirley Sherwood Collection

In 2018 Dr Sherwood’s family surprised her with Guest’s depiction of a flowering branch of the pocket-handkerchief tree (Davidia involucrata), taken from the botanist’s own garden, as a special commission to commemorate the 1,000th work in the collection.

It is this milestone that prompted the publication of this new book, but Dr Sherwood also felt it important to draw attention to the increasingly global nature of the collection. British artists still dominate but over the years she has added artists from more than 30 countries. When she was just starting to collect, botanical illustration was, she suggests, considered “a rather ‘English’ enthusiasm” but it has since moved toward a more international dialogue surrounding conservation and in particular the documentation of endangered species and habitat loss.

A pioneering conservationist and profoundly influential artist was the quietly spoken, but exceedingly brave, Margaret Mee. Mee died in 1988 in a car crash near Leicester – having survived innumerable dangers after 30 years exploring the Amazon basin. This included confronting would-be bandits with a pistol, but her bigger battle was in raising awareness about deforestation and the loss of rare species, many not yet known to science. As she once wrote: “I know my death won’t mean the end of my work. Wherever I may be, I’ll try to influence those who are destroying the planet for them to give nature a chance to survive.”

Margaret Mee's portrait of philodendron; collector Dr Shirley Sherwood Credit: The Shirley Sherwood Collection; Jeff Eden © RBG Kew

She executed a number of unusual plant portraits where she paid special attention to the backgrounds in order to draw attention to the plant’s threatened habitat, as is shown in her study of philodendron twining its way among mangroves. This image is in Dr Sherwood’s book and Mee’s work has a special place in the collection, with Dr Sherwood being especially proud to own Mee’s depiction of the cannonball tree (Couroupita guianensis), Mee's first painting from the Amazon.

As well as flying the flag for environmentalism, Mee helped foster an enduring interest in botanical art in Brazil, which has since flourished as a centre of excellence. As contemporary artist Malena Barretto explains: “Margaret paved the way for botanical art in Brazil,” and after Mee’s death, a fellowship programme was established to allow Brazilian artists to work at Kew. If Mee paved the way, then Dr Sherwood played her part in maintaining it by supporting many fellowship artists, some of whom, such as Fatima Zagonel and Gustavo Surlo, feature in her book. A few years ago I was lucky enough to enjoy a personal tour with Dr Sherwood at her Oxfordshire home and I remember how she enthused over the skill but also the speed at which some of the Brazilian artists worked.

Walking around her home, paintings covering every wall, I asked what drove her to choose particular pieces. What concerns Dr Sherwood is having the best work of each artist. She is interested in which paintings the artist themselves prefer but looks for “good layout, superb technique, truthful colour and originality”. She is also increasingly aware of “wall appeal”, often finding that the first painting she notices in a gallery is the one she ends up buying. Trusting this gut reaction has become important to her expansion of the collection.

Not restricted to conventional watercolour on paper, she has diversified with atypical pieces such as Kate Knessler’s 'At the Edge: Concord Grapes – Vitis labrusca' (2012) where the artist has used an unusual piece of vellum taken from the edge of the hide. Yanny Petters’s life-size teasel (Dipsacus fullonum) from 2015 is another unusual depiction being painted entirely on a single large pane of glass.

Gustavo Surlo ‘Nymphaea thermamum’ [2018] - This young Brazilian artist completed this study of the world’s smallest water lily at RBG Kew as part of the Margaret Mee Fellowship Programme. Found in one thermal pool in Rwanda, this incredibly rare lily gained attention after plants were stolen from Kew in 2014. Credit: The Shirley Sherwood Collection

Beyond simply purchasing art, Dr Sherwood has helped spread interest in botanical art through her determination to raise awareness for the collection internationally. She was first invited to assist in an exhibition in 1996 of contemporary botanical art at Kew and has since curated exhibitions across the globe, from Sweden to Japan, alongside an intense schedule of lectures, guided tours and masterclasses that have helped stimulate interest in botanical art among local populations. For many years her husband owned hotels in 24 countries and Dr Sherwood savvily used these as venues for hosting lectures and masterclasses where internationally ­recognised botanical artists would teach. The swelling numbers of membership groups and botanical art societies attest to the success of these events.

Victoria Braithwaite, 'Peony, Greenbank Garden'; Rory McEwan, ‘Upper Club, Eton’  Credit: The Shirley Sherwood Collection

It seems counter-intuitive that when increasingly sophisticated camera technology is being used to compile digital floral databases, botanical art should continue to flourish. In the face of such high-definition imagery, surely the painterly lines of illustration are redundant? However, one publication that doggedly maintains its illustrated principles is Curtis’s Botanical Magazine. Published by Kew, this quarterly journal has been running for more than 200 years with every issue presenting 24 plant portraits executed by Kew-based artists. While a peculiarly English love of tradition is clearly a motivation for its continued existence, there is also a strong argument that illustration allows the artist to present an idealised – but scientifically accurate – form where the plant can be manipulated to show almost all its distinguishing traits in a single image.

Few can deny the pleasure of exploring the infinitesimal detail in a skilled botanical illustration. However, it is important in any art form that artists continue to push expectations and allow the indefinable, emotive power of plants to also find it way on to the page. While we enjoy looking back to the glory of the past, the variety and depth represented in the Sherwood collection provides a reassurance of a bright future for botanical art.

Book offer

The Shirley Sherwood Collection: Masterpieces of Botanical Art (Kew, £35). Buy now for £30 at books.telegraph.co.uk or call 0844 871 1514.