20 June 2019

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

This month we've launched our first heritage collection in collaboration with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Michelle C Porter visited this much loved British institution to find out why after 260 years the Gardens still delight and surprise visitors and how their botanical art has inspired our Kew collection.

Just a short walk along the Thames from Kew Bridge railway station you will discover the Royal Botanic Gardens, a UNESCO world heritage site, London's lung hidden behind a winding wall covering 326 acres of earthly delights. The day I visited was a short pause in what had been a week of continuous rain, the sun bold in the sky setting the day apart from the everyday.

Everything looked stunning in the dappled light, and like the other visitors I couldn't help but reach for my phone, the photo opportunities made my heart skip a little faster with greed; the giant blue glass Allium like sculpture by Chihuly glimpsed through the leaves of an acorn tree, herbaceous borders and ancient trees. Adding my images to the thousands captured over the centuries was in some small way, a direct link to the botanical illustrations first painted, etched and sketched hundreds of years ago.

The origins of botanical art arose from this same impulse. A desire to record the beauty and properties of flora and fauna way before the advent of the camera in the 19th Century.

The Origins

'The greatest flower artists have been those who have found beauty in truth; who have understood plants scientifically, but who have yet seen and described them with the eye and the hand of the artist.'

Wilfrid Blunt - 'The Art of Botanical Illustration'

The practice of botanical art is centuries old and stretches back to the civilisations of ancient Greece and China. Created as a way to record plants for medicinal purposes,  books called herbals were used to identify plants and advise practitioners on how to make medicines and ointments. Many of these illustrations were created using woodblocks and are works of art in their own right.

Iris from the Honzu Zufu by Iwaskai Tseuenemasa. Japan 1823.
Copyright of Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Botanical art as we know it has its roots in a plant record called the Florilegium (plural Florilegium) a collection of illustrations of all the many plants and flowers that grew in some of the most illustrious gardens. Wealthy landowners, including George III and Queen Charlotte, early residents of Kew, employed explorers and botanical artists to discover and record plants from their gardens and more exotic specimens from across the globe.

The role of the botanic artist was taken very seriously and Franz Bauer was appointed the Garden's first botanical painter in residence with the grand title  ‘Botanick Painter to His Majesty' (King George III). His duty was to document the wonders of the King's garden and the exotic plants his explorers were bringing back from the South Pacific and the African Cape. 

What may have started as a PR exercise on the splendour of the King's garden is now an important record of the era. Kew's Library, Art and Archives collection now holds over 2000 years of plant knowledge, many of which come from these wonderful catalogues of early European gardens. 

Poppies greeting card inspired by botanical artist Sebastian Schedel.

Schedel was commissioned by Basler for Horteus Eystettensis (Germany 1600s). Basler would send plants cut from the Bishop's garden to teams of artists to sketch and colour. They would then be engraved and printed to form the book.

Bringing the Exotic to the Masses - The Pleasure Garden

Although Kew is a temple of scientific knowledge, it is also a place of wonder. When Joseph Hooker took over the directorship of the Gardens in 1865 he continued to maintain the Garden's role as a centre of botanical work. He also opened the gates to the public so that they could experience the Gardens and they came in droves.

From the very beginning, Kew has been a place of refuge and pleasure, a respite from the city beyond its garden walls. The Garden's were born in an age where  pleasure gardens in the capital were in full swing. Public gardens festooned with oil lamps, fireworks dancing and cheeky behaviour between the sexes. Although it started life as a garden for royal pleasure, the gardens were closed to the public before 1 pm to allow students of botany to go about their work. Due to its proximity to the railway, Kew became a popular destination for working-class families from the East End, and Joseph Hooker commenting on these visitors said they were

"Mere pleasure or recreation seekers … whose motives are rude romping and games."

Contrary to the sensationalist news reports, most visitors came to experience the natural beauty of the Gardens, and I wanted to experience Kew through their eyes. Those early visitors who would experience exotic plants from the Southern Hemisphere and tropics for the very first time. My first stop was the Temperate House - opened in 1863, it has recently been restored to its former glory, and it still has the power to enchant.

Giant yellow trumpets of flowers, hot pink berries on the Cestrum fassciculatum, orchids with octopus-like fronds, stamens and velvety pods, white plants like wisps of cotton (Zopoteca), delicate flowers veined with deep claret markings. Sensual, exotic, heady and magical, like a child I wanted to explore.

Zapoteca - Image by C Dadswell

Built on two levels with ironwork stairs covered in flowers, their unfurling tongue- like fronds peep from the exotic, purple bells. I climbed the stairs up into the clouds and as I peered down I was transported to another place far away from TW9. Chihuly's glass Red Reeds, flaming in the sun against the lush green of the plants and sound of water. I could imagine how magnificent this would have been for Victorian Londoners who had possibly never left their home borough. 

"I am an intrepid explorer. In spite of petticoats and crinolines, I'll explore the world." Marianne North

Before cameras, botanical artists were employed to document known plant and flower species and many travelled the world to seek out new and exotic examples of flora. During the Victorian era these men and women travelled the globe bringing back samples and drawings that would fill the British public with awe and wonder. Artists like Georg Dionysius Ehret illustrated exotic plants arriving in England that were strange and intriguing to British eyes.

Telopea Speciosissima by Pancrace Bessa (1772-1846)
Image Copyright Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. 

One of the most famous botanical artists of the Victoria era was a woman of means, Marianne North. In an age where a woman was supposed to be the 'angel in the house', North travelled the globe to places as far-flung as Borneo and Japan, trekking up mountains and into jungles to paint plants in their natural habitat. Over 800 of her oil paintings can still be seen today in the Marianne North Gallery which she funded herself as a gift to Kew.

Portrait of Marianne North, copyright Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

The gallery is a piece of beauty in itself, colour bursting from golden frames. Created in an age before colour photography, they must have mesmerised those early visitors. By visiting the gallery, the public could follow the pictures as though they were following Marianne North around the world, each picture being hung to follow geographical order. 

This is not merely a museum of botanical art, but a reminder of how indigenous flora and fauna was brought to the British public, inspiring them with their exoticism. This feeling of the exotic and the wonder the original visitors must have felt was a great inspiration for creative director Kelly Hyatt when he was designing the Kew collection of greeting cards.

"For me, Kew is a place of fantasy and magic, and in this collection, I have played with colour to create greetings cards that are bold and fresh. I wanted to inspire the viewer to see the botanical images through the eyes of those intrepid explorers who discovered the flowers and plants for the very first time."

Cereus Flower, Greeting Card by Lagom Design.

Taking the Past into the Future

"How hot it was! So hot that even the Thrush chose to hop, like a mechanical bird in the shadow of the flowers, with long pauses between one movement and the next; instead of rambling vaguely the white butterflies danced one above the other, making with their white shifting flakes the outline of a shattered marble column above the tallest flowers ;the glass roofs of the Palm House shone as if the whole market full of shiny green umbrellas had opened in the sun; and in the drone of the aeroplane the voice of the summer sun murmured its fierce soul."

Virginia Woolf - 'Kew Gardens' 1921

As I walked the lawn towards the Palm House between the beds of roses on either side, the sun beat down upon my neck. Without warning a plane passed overhead driving directly into the sun and casting 300 mph horizontal shadows over the glass panels of the roof. It's nearly 100 years since Virginia Woolf wrote about a day at Kew, and since then the sun has become a little fiercer, planes are more frequent and more polluting, but some things remain the same. The glorious Palm House first erected in 1848 is still as breathtaking today as when it was first built, and I stopped to take in the magnificence of this Victorian structure before I ventured inside.

There's something about the Palm House that reminds me of a library or a church before mass. Somewhere that makes you walk a little more slowly and whisper as though the chatter of every day is disrespectful and out of place below the pleated leaves and light dappled trees. Silently the horticulturalists attended to their work, like clergy in a small cathedral accompanied by the gentle hiss of the sprinklers. There is a magic in the atmosphere that seduces you into paying attention, piquing your curiosity and widening your screen sore eyes. The sensuality of new found love, the fecundity of nature makes the heart quicken a little; a feeling summed up by the Mimosa padisa (sensitive plant) that curled up as I tickled it.

And this is the beauty of Kew. A place where plants are sacred, each leaf and petal tended and preserved for the future of science, beauty and the planet. Within one of the most densely populated cities in the world, people find the space to saunter, to whisper and connect intellectually and sensually to the natural world. The gentle and enduring charm of botanical art encapsulates this magic. 

Kew inspires feelings of love, care and the need to cherish. The Kew collection not only pays homage to the past but looks towards the future, in some small way contributing to the appreciation of the natural world and our need to protect it. Art has the capacity to inspire us, to rouse the passions needed to fully appreciate our beautiful planet and the fight to save it. 

Strelitzia regina
Botanical Image copyright Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
Shop the collection