2016 ASBA Diane Bouchier Artist Award for Excellence in Botanical Art
by Barbara Rose
Walking through a garden or woods with Beverly Allen is a treat. She sees what others might breeze by, stopping to pick up a leaf, reaching out to study a branch from a different angle.
Occasionally, a plant’s seductive powers simply are too great for her to move along, as on the day she visited the Royal Botanic Garden in her native city of Sydney without her sketchbook. She planned to check on a plant in the tropical center, but directly in front of the plant she had come to see stood a tongue orchid with big green and orange bulbs and a crown of burgundy orchids.
“It looked just like a Carmen Miranda hat,” she recalls. “I had to go and buy a pencil and paper from the gift shop and start to draw.”
Allen’s paintings communicate her passion for her subjects with bold compositions, arresting color, and laser-sharp accuracy. Her watercolors, typically life-sized plant portraits, have earned her an international reputation and botanical art’s highest honors. She was awarded the inaugural Gold Medal for Botanical Art by the New York Botanic Gardens in 2010, and a Gold Medal at the Royal Horticultural Society’s exhibition in 2007.
For these and other achievements, the American Society of Botanical Artists awarded her the Diane Bouchier Artist Award for Excellence in Botanical Art in 2016.
Artists and curators praise her distinctive style, which places her firmly within the tradition of the best contemporary botanical art.
“Beverly has a marvelous way of bringing her subjects to life by using brilliant colors and dramatic negative space," says artist Catherine M. Watters, former ASBA board member and instructor at Filoli Estates in Woodside, California. “Her work is dynamic and sculptural."
“At times she has an unusual approach to a subject, which I love,” says Australia’s Colleen Morris, garden historian, author, and curator. “Combine that with her sense of composition, superb painting technique, and color analysis and—viola—there is a magnificent piece of work.”
Her work is represented in major private and public collections including the Shirley Sherwood Collection in London, the Isaac and Alisa Sutton Collection in New York, the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation in Pittsburgh, the Royal Botanic Gardens Herbarium Library at Kew Gardens, the Royal Horticultural Society Lindley Library in London, the Highgrove Florilegium for the Prince of Wales’ Charitable Trust, and the Royal Botanic Gardens Trust, Sydney.
She also has contributed immeasurably to botanical art as co-founder and president of the Florilegium Society at the Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney.
Beverly’s love for plants was nurtured by her grandmother, who immigrated to Australia from England in the 1920s, bringing with her a love of gardening. She grew greenhouse orchids and planted colorful borders of dahlias, sweet William and roses, mixing English plants with Australian.
“I used to go there on the way home from school,” Allen recalls. “We would walk through the garden, stopping here and there to see what was growing.
“At home we had a garden and I loved to water it mainly because you could stand there (with the sprinkler) and make everything sparkle.”
Her own garden in suburban Hunters Hill, about six miles from Sydney’s central business district, includes plants from her grandmother’s garden, favorites of her mother’s, and many of her subjects from 19 years painting botanicals. The sounds of kookaburras fill the air, and dragonflies flit about.
Beverly pursued a career in graphic design as a practical way to draw and paint every day, activities she’d loved since childhood. She holds a bachelor of fine arts from the University of Sydney.
She worked in package design for a cosmetics-maker and for an advertising agency doing layouts and illustration before pausing when her two sons were born, then returning to work as a freelancer when her youngest entered school.
Collector Shirley Sherwood’s growing influence in the mid-1990s opened her eyes to the possibility of combining her gifts as an artist with her love of plants. She recalls her excitement when she paged through Sherwood’s book, Contemporary Botanical Artists, in 1997.
“I was blown away by the paintings and the fresh approach to botanical art,” she recalls. “Pandora Sellers’ painting on the cover (“Blue Water Lily”) was a great inspiration. I learned a lot from that book. I still go back and look at the wonderful way Anna Ophelia Dowden paints leaves--what can be done with a simple leaf.”
An exhibition of Sherwood’s collection opened in Sydney in 1998, and Sherwood introduced Melbourne artist and teacher Jenny Phillips. Allen took a workshop with Phillips and subsequently traveled for five-day workshops at her Botanical Art School of Melbourne.
“Jenny’s method really suited me down to the ground,” Allen recalls, “and we became good friends.”
Botanic artists tend to fall in two groups, Allen says: artists who paint with washes and those who paint mainly dry brush. Phillips taught her how to layer color in washes using a six-color palette with a warm and cool hue for each of the three primary colors.
“I have numerous other colors as well, but the basis is always mixing and layering colors” from the warm/cool triad, she says.
Of course, every painting begins with “good drawing, good observation,” she adds.
After years of rendering whatever subject her job required, she loved having the freedom to paint whatever plant caught her fancy. “I’ve never consciously directed my choice of subject matter,” she says. “I’m easily seduced by plants.”
The more unusual, the better. When she was invited to participate in fine-art dealer Jonathan Cooper’s 2015 exhibition in London commemorating the 25th anniversary of Sherwood’s collection, Allen painted one of her favorite subjects: Doryanthes excelsa or Gymea lily, an Australian native.
“The inflorescence is 18 inches across, and the bracts extend like outstretched hands, with the flowers opening successively. Its colors range from the palest pink through to salmon, scarlet, and purple,” she says. “It’s so much fun to paint because there’s such a range of color in it.”
Her painting sold last June, and Cooper commissioned another Gymea lily.
“They flower in August, and I painted furiously for about eight weeks” before flying to Pittsburgh for ASBA’s 2016 conference in October, Allen recalls. “It’s lovely to be able to paint every day.”
Doryanthes excels (Gymea lily) seedpods and Lonicera italic (Honeysuckle)
Watercolor on vellum, 20 x 28cm, © 2013 Beverly Allen
She works at home in an upstairs room with both north- and south-facing windows. Her days start early with a walk and, when she needs to acquire subjects, a 5:30 am visit to a Sydney flower market. When she has a day to paint, she works from mid-morning until the light goes around 7 pm.
She works with her paper nearly vertical using a metal drawing table with a wooden top. Her paints rest on a small chest with wheels, and her subject rests on another trolley table so she can move around the studio to catch the best light.
In recent years, she’s alternated large paintings on paper with small still life works on vellum, calling the latter her “collection paintings.” She gathers leaves, pods, and other bits of plants that catch her fancy on morning walks or in the garden.
“I explore the color and their textures,” she says. “I find it very calming in a way. On a large work, there’s a big period in the middle where you work away and wonder if you’re ever going to get to the end. With the little ones, they take a week or two and they’re more under control.”
Flindersia australis, Nerium oleander, Prunus sp., Pelargonium sp., Rosa rugosa, Psaltoda plaga (the cicada)
Watercolor on vellum, 30 x 20cm, © 2014 Beverly Allen
Beverly’s large paintings include a rendering of bamboo (156 x 22 cm) in the New York-based Isaac Sutton collection. It resembles a Japanese screen, with leaves dancing across more than five feet of painting punctuated by angled sections of stalks.
In Sherwood’s collection is Beverly’s Yellow American Lotus (80 x 60 cm), a lyrical grouping of leaves, buds, and blooms. “When it flowers, you see every part of the plant growing at the same time,” Allen says.
“Her years spent as a graphic designer informs her compositions,” Morris, the curator, says.
Morris worked closely with Beverly on the Sydney Florilegium, editing the plant list, writing the historical text for a book, and curating an exhibition at the Museum of Sydney, “Florilegium: Sydney’s painted garden.” The Florilegium and book, with 87 full-color plates by 64 artists, celebrated the Gardens’ 200th anniversary in 2016.
“It takes a very special person like Beverly to liaise with individual artists” to manage the project and see the book through production,” Morris says. “Patience and diplomacy are some of her abiding qualities. She is generous with her time and spirit.”
All the paintings were donated, and the Florilegium Society, a charitable organization, raised money through a private viewings and subscriptions to cover the book’s printing costs.
“There was so much good will in that book,” Beverly says. “It’s been lovely.”
The Florilegium Society’s next project, for 2020, will commemorate the 250th anniversary of the journey to the South Pacific by explorer Joseph Banks with Carl Linnaeus’ pupil, Daniel Solander. It will focus on expedition plants that have connections with Sydney’s botanic gardens.
As for Allen’s next paintings, she faces two entry deadlines in the first half of 2017: one for Sydney Gardens’ annual “Botanica” exhibition, which she hasn’t missed since 1999, and the other for the Third New York Botanical Garden Triennial, “Out of the Woods.”
“Recently I was with her, and she gasped at the beauty of the form and luscious deep tones in a Musa flower,” Morris says. “I could almost see her itching to paint it, although it was not a good time to start something new!”
Of course, there’s always the possibility that when she can least afford a distraction, a plant that resembles a Carmen Miranda hat will seduce her. And we all will be the better for it.