Any excuse for a visit to Chelsea Physic Garden is a good one, but the current exhibition, London's Secret Garden, to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the Florilegium Society won't disappoint.
About the Florilegium Society
Set up in 1995 to record the plants in the garden, after a botanical art course run on site by The English Gardening School gave the students the desire to continue painting, it has only sixty members at any one time. Members visit the garden regularly and the society's Chairman, Dugald Graham-Campbell explained, with a twinkle in his eye, "In return for the kudos for being asked to be a member, you are expected to paint something from the garden each year."
The Society aims to catalogue every plant in the garden eventually, which is quite a task, given that there are five thousand different plants and their collection currently boasts 650 paintings. Combine this with the fact that, in reality, about thirty-five pictures are submitted in time for acceptance each year - and there's work for years to come.
Each November, submitted pictures are judged by an independent panel which includes doctors of botany from Kew and the curator of Chelsea Physic Garden. Artistic merit isn't considered; acceptance depends on whether a picture is scientifically accurate enough to be accepted.
The demands of botanical painting
Seventy-five pictures are on display in the current exhibition. The pictures are entrancing in their detail. Botanical art differs from flower painting in being strictly scientific in intent, providing an accurate record of the plant, sufficient for ID purposes. So, no vases, no insects, no dewdrops - though sometimes an artist just can't help herself on the latter (and yes, the majority of members are women).
Past chairman Judi Stone explained the finer points of the art and it became clear that, with too much artistic licence, you'd probably end up with a flower painting. "If stems cross, it could be unclear and messy," explained Judi, pointing out the separate seedhead of the Calendula illustrated above.
Of course, rules are there to be broken and skilful artists manage it well. In another picture, an aubergine overlapped a slice of the fruit, cleverly linking the two, but nevertheless clearly separate. "You can see a very thin white edge has been left between the two to indicate separation," said Judi.
Yet, within such strictures there is remarkable artistry, not just in the accurate rendition of colour and shape, but, by clever placement, in making a subject feel anchored and its parts united on the page when there is no background to set it against.
If the demands of botanical art seem to put it far out of your artistic range, it's encouraging to find that the discipline can be an entry into painting. Gill Barlow, who is the society's archivist and has taught in her time, explained that you can teach people to see, to measure with compasses for accurate rendition, and to create a design. (She sketches the elements on pieces of tracing paper and arranges them to her satisfaction, before starting the actual work.)
The artists have considerable freedom to work as they please. Some use watercolours (with a dry-brush technique to ensure accurate lines and colours), others pen and ink or pencil (145 pictures in the collection are in black and white). One in the exhibition (you're unlikely to spot which) is in coloured pencils. Paper can be of different textures; one uses vellum.
Do we need botanical art?
Isn't all this painstaking attention to detail rather an indulgence in this day of the digital camera? Andrew Brown, who wrote the accompanying book, Botanical Illustration from Chelsea Physic Garden, explained, "Botanical art has advantages over photos. Everything that is required for diagnosis of a plant is on the same page. You could put a whole lot of photographs together, but not everything would be in focus. The business of focus - that's the main point."
What botanical art certainly does is make the viewer focus. For some, the idea of concentrating so minutely (even through a microscope, for those artists who wish) is a dry view of nature. Yet, the enormous service provided by such painstaking efforts is it gives us, the viewers, a chance see the plants anew, and gain a greater appreciation through seeing with another's eyes. Even the dreaded Horsetail, an absolute bete noire of mine, and portrayed in tiny monochrome pencil strokes by Guy Eves, received my grudging admiration.
London's Secret Garden information
The Chelsea Physic Garden exhibition is open until August 26th, from 11 to 4, free with entrance to the garden. On a Monday, the cafe and shop are not open and 2-for-1 offers are not valid. The exhibition is only accessible via stairs.
This is the first time that the Garden has taken on the reproduction of products arising from the Florilegium Society. Six prints, fridge magnets, magnetic bookmarks and a scarf, featuring botanical art that can be seen in the exhibition, can be purchased from the shop.