Natural Wonders

Natural Wonders

The Royal Horticultural Society is again partnering with Saatchi Gallery to present the RHS Botanical Art and Photography Show, running parallel to the RHS Chelsea Flower Show during September. The exhibition will feature more than 200 botanical artworks and photographs by 34 artists from around the world, in a celebration of technical dexterity, artistic style and the complexity of natural forms.

The history of botanical illustration stretches back millennia, offering an interesting presentiment of the “form-follows-function” philosophy of modern art. In traditional plant studies, representation always proceeded from close technical observation and a deep knowledge of plant morphology and biology. Artists had access to live specimens and potentially collaborated with scientific advisors. At the same time, the resulting works were aesthetic marvels for the skill and meditative attention with which the intricacy of organic life was reflected, and perhaps even enhanced.

During the Renaissance, artists such as Albrecht Dürer produced dazzling close studies of flowers and grasses, raising the minutiae of plant life to a position of grand, divine spectacle – as names such as The Great Piece of Turf (1503) suggest. Over subsequent centuries, botanical illustration became a prestigious professional role, and whilst the rise of photography and, more recently, computer-aided design has reduced the human element of the process, the lens has been incorporated alongside the pen and brush as one of the tools of the illustrator’s craft.

The show features previous award-winners including Eleanor Coate, whose photographic works, such as Orchis Phalaenopsis, pay homage to 18th century masters of botanical drawing, achieving an almost uncanny perfection reminiscent of hyperrealist painting. The same can be said of Polina Plotnikova, whose Past Perfect renders each vein of a pair of faded lily blossoms with a microscopic accuracy suggesting a sketcher’s pencil. Working on a larger scale, Marion Sidebotton and Rachel Wallace depict the tones and textures of bark, trunk and canopy in their photographic studies of trees.

Working in a more time-honoured style, Mariko Ikeda presents sumptuous illustrations of seed pods, roots and fruits such as Pandanus Dubius (2016), while Clare McGhee’s painting Solanum tuberosum ‘Arran Victory’ – Potato Peeling (2011) offers a Dürer-esque elevation of its subject matter. Previous RHS Gold medal-winning artists include Hye Woo Shin, Jean Emmons, Annie Hughes and many others.

The show compliments the RHS’s Lindley Collections of more than 30,000 botanical paintings stretching back to the 1630s, and its archive of garden photography dating from the 1860s onwards. A number of award-winning paintings from each year’s show join the Lindley Collections.

This year’s entries will not be revealed until after their judging at the opening of the show and winners will be announced on the 16th September. The RHS Botanical Art and Photography Show runs at Saatchi Gallery from 18 September until 3 October. Find out more here.

Words: Greg Thomas

Image Credits:
1. Rose Herbarium, 2019 by Emilija Petrauskiene/RHS Lindley Collections ©Emilija Petrauskiene Awarded RHS Silver Medal 2019
2. Anthurium, 2019 by Steve Le Grys ©Steve Le Grys Awarded RHS Silver-Gilt 2019
3. Hellebores, 2019 by Kevin Dutton/RHS Lindley Collections © Kevin Dutton Awarded RHS Gold medal 2019
4. Crocus by Francesca Wilkinson/ RHS Lindley Collections © Francesca Wilkinson