The Friends of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne are currently hosting their twelfth biennial celebration of botanical art with a stunning display of works.
The Art of Botanical Illustration Exhibition is on now in the Domain Gallery, sited in a delightful cottage in the King’s Domain, which is adjacent to the National Herbarium. at the Royal Botanic Gardens (RBG). It is showing until November 9, 2014, at South Yarra, Melbourne.
Botanical illustrations are all about showcasing finely wrought detail and giving people a clear understanding of their subject; conveying a message about fresh new life, beauty of form and colour, while achieving the ‘highest degree of scientific accuracy and artistic excellence’ possible.
At the opening of this event, the Friends announced the 2014 Botanical Artist of the Year. This year they couldn’t separate two of their artists, Iona McKinnon for her two watercolour illustrations Eucalyptus macrocarpa ssp. Macrocarpa and Eucalyptus rhodanthe, and Angela Lober, for her watercolour illustration of a Stenocarpus sinuatus, more commonly known as the Firewheel tree.
The works were considered to be outstanding among a great collection of wonderful works produced by talented enthusiasts.
The Royal Botanical Gardens and Domain Trust at Melbourne hold one of the world’s finest collections of botanical illustrations in the country in their National Herbarium.
They depict an enormous variety of native and ornamental plants in a diverse selection of media, all adhering to ‘standard’ botanical practices.
A botanical illustration is all about the ability of the artist to balance their composition both technically and artistically.
Joanna Brownell, a founding member of the Friends of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne usually favours flowers.
Like many of her artist colleagues, her works both celebrate and separate the entity into constituent parts or elements, so they can reproduce a successful image.
Her watercolour of Allium cepa, Cichorium intybus, Allium sativum, and Beta vulgaris or as we would say, red onions, radicchio, garlic and beetroot, is a subject that not only livens up our meal at dinnertime, but also has the ability to brighten up our walls at home or at work for the rest of time?
The artistry attached to producing the images is certainly about great skill.
Sandra Sanger was the ‘artist in residence’ on the day I viewed the show, chatting happily to me about her love for botanical works, while diligently working on her next one.
Sandra has already been a ‘Celia Rosser’ Award winner, and images of her works have often been reproduced on fundraising publications for institutions, including The National Trust Diary as well as The Royal Botanic Gardens Christmas cards, to name a few.
Her lovely Sarcochilus Fitzgeraldii watercolour was only one of four of her works that caught my eye. She also volunteers often to help out practically at all events, including for this show.
For her its all about taking the journey; the process, form, shapes, textures and colours.
Human beings can create beauty or enhance their environment by providing a spiritual uplift and inspiration, which remains unseen, although it is expressed in the image seen.
That’s how it is perhaps with Botanical illustration.
So, why are these drawings still so popular today?
What exactly is it about these detailed works that draws people in and keeps them captive?
Is it only about the analytical science attached to their production?
For Beverley Lewis, an award winning artist, who already has an image in the State Botanical Collection, it’s certainly all about the challenge.
She enjoys producing an image that while accurate in real terms, also inspires through the way she creates and captures its form, warts, blemishes, crooked branches and all.
Her drawing of the ‘Separation Tree’ – Eucalyptus Camaldulensis or River Red Gum, underscores the temporality and fleeting beauty of a living plant.
This tree has both historical and cultural interest in that under its branches the citizens of Victoria celebrated ‘separating’ from NSW.
This happened on 11 November, 1850.
Since then it has survived the ravages of the environment and attempts by some human beings who for some strange reason want to attack a tree.
Apart from showcasing the works of their botanical illustrators, the Friends have also become renowned for the specialist workshops and classes. They teach botanical art.
The Friends of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne also hold many other fund raising events to support the gardens here at Melbourne.
These include illustrated talks about all sorts of subjects with a garden theme.
On Wednesday 29th October at 6pm in the Mueller Hall at the National Herbarium Andrew Laidlaw, Landscape Architect, RBG & Peter Symes, Curator, Environmental Horticulture, RBG will both discuss: A Children’s Garden in the Gaza Strip – Planting the seeds of hope.
This is subject dear to their hearts, especially after visiting this ravaged region and seeing first hand just how much the children and their families would benefit from a safe green garden space.
The human desire for more than a subsistence level lifestyle is fulfilled to a large degree by the beauty and visual satisfaction we find in gardens. From the earliest times they were associated with shade, running water; fragrance, fresh produce, peace and prosperity. In a garden all the strands of a creative life come together and become part of its fabric.
Apart from being able to work with plants that will produce food, the whole idea of a garden for these families will ensure that the warmth of life will enter as they elp to open up opportunities by creating doors and windows that look out onto a different world; one that provides an impression of a sense of the freshness of countryside, feeding the senses and giving hope there is a better world to come.
The Friends also hold plant sales, where the locals especially flock to find all sorts of rare and wonderful plants they did not know about on display.
All the events they hold have an aim of raising funds for the Royal Botanic Gardens, and up until this point they have donated over $2.2 million towards its many projects.
Recent significant projects includes the Working Wetlands, Restoration and Irrigation in Fern Gully and the Herbarium Discovery Walk. They also provide a Research Grant that supports scientific research.
Today what art is, and isn’t can be confusing for many people. It is a very complex question that can take hours to answer, even though it may seem simple on the surface.
Botanical drawing like most art forms that started in the past has traditions that have become attached to it, none more so perhaps than here in Melbourne.
From ancient times to Australian colonial times, gardens became a subject of much fascination especially when Austrian botanical artist of consummate skill Ferdinand Bauer (1760 – 1826) arrived in Australia.
A truly talented artist Bauer had been employed at Kew Gardens in London, travelling to Australia in the Investigator expedition of 1798 commanded by Matthew Flinders.
His arrival ensured that many worlds changed.
He advised the great Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820), naturalist and patron of science, whose report on flora had originally led to Australia’s colonization, because he had the ear of the King and government and no one doubted his word.
Bauer by 1803 had produced ‘sketches of plants above one thousand’, drawings he finished when he arrived back in England and prepared for publication.
It was Banks’s interest in Australian plants when he headed up the Kew Gardens in London, that made certain there would be a botanic garden in the new colony at all. This happened first in 1816, brought on by the need to produce an adequate food supply.
In such unfamiliar soil and harsh climate the major pre-occupation for all early settlers and the governing authorities, was the shaping of a garden. Hardship provoked ingenuity, not culture or fashion and the memory of landscaped gardens in fashionable England was for the ‘colonists’ as remote in motivation as they were in distance.
For many years after he had been in Australia Bauer was referred to often as the ‘Leonardo of natural history painting.
This perception was infused after he published in 1813 in London, his superb Illustrations Florae Novae Hollandiae, which was simply packed full of his splendid botanical illustrations recorded when he was here in Australia of native plants.
It is that tradition which continues today
In any age art provides a unique insight into the reality of people and their perceptions and a garden it is without doubt a harbinger of hope.
The Friends of the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne are an active group who work hard to raise funds and interact with people who see the value in helping to preserve and maintain one of the cities greatest public spaces.
They are always looking for volunteers to help their cause.
For this exhibition the Friends of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne, are showcasing works by local artists, and also interstate and overseas artists with some 139 works on display, plus nearly 250 unframed originals and print, which are all works for sale.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2014