Hang It Up
It’s About Time, It’s About Place
Originally appeared in The Botanical Artist – Volume 14, Issue 1
A short time ago, the exhibition of HRH The Prince of Wales’ Highgrove Florilegium opened in NYC, and like many others, I made my way to the New York School of Interior Design to see its 75 botanical paintings by an international group of artists. The plants depicted are all contained in the 15 acres of Highgrove’s gardens, and the artworks will be included in a two-volume facsimile edition limited to 175 copies. It is a tremendous project resulting in the generation of many stunning paintings, and has created a remarkable historical document of a particular place and time.
A week after the exhibition debuted, Patricia Jonas, an ASBA Board member and Curator of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden Florilegium Society Collection, presented a lecture about their own Florilegium and placed some of these and other contemporary botanical artworks in a historical context. One benefit of florilegia is that the artworks are retained in institutional collections, stored in protective environments, and are likely to become part of our contemporary cultural record. Another asset is that florilegia engender relationships between these gardens and artists, helping to broaden artists’ knowledge of the plants they depict, which is evident in the resulting artworks.
One of the things Patricia mentioned in her talk was a project undertaken by BBG staff artists Maud Purdy and Louise Mansfield to paint the Japanese irises in the garden, one of the American Iris Society’s test gardens, in the 1920’s and ‘30’s. I began to wonder about this Iris garden, which is no longer extant, the varieties of iris painted, and whether some are no longer in existence. In addition, Patricia pointed out an example of Iris susiana, a species of Turkish origin very rarely seen in cultivation, but painted by Ehret, Redouté, Ligozzi, and Maud Purdy. More people may have seen it through paintings than have seen it in life. This led to further musings about the importance of specificity in our art form, and more than that, about how specific our artworks are to our time.
B otanical artists are often drawn to plants that speak to them in some way, and when we tackle a compelling project we are often not seeing any further than the possibility of finishing the artwork and perhaps exhibiting it. Once on public view alongside other artists’ works, we might ask if the exhibition taken as a whole is botanically illuminating. Is the diversity of the plant world depicted? When we think about how long today’s artworks will remain in the cultural record, it may be helpful to take a long view when choosing what plant to portray. In addition to searching for plants rarely seen, recording the correct name of the species or cultivar, the date and location of the studies, and the date of the artwork’s completion may supply historically significant documentation.
These days, times and places seem to be changing ever more quickly. ASBA artists around the world have described their travels close to home and far afield capturing our planet’s vanishing flora in gardens, conservatories, and all kinds of habitats. One of these artists, Monika deVries Gohlke, recently traveled to Mauritius, known for its extinct dodo bird. We’ve pieced together our knowledge of that totemic bird from a few valuable sketches, paintings, stories, and skeletal remains. The island is representative of many, once replete with endemic species, now suffering from invasive plants and animals, habitat fragmentation, and a host of other assaults on the native flora and fauna. Monika discovered an endangered palm, Latania loddigesii, fruiting on property that has been sold to developers for a hotel. Her resulting artwork and its accompanying documentation will tell a story to future generations, both on Mauritius and in the world at large.
We don’t know which common, rare, or threatened plants we choose to portray will be here in a hundred years and which will be gone. However, each artwork is a page in an incredibly diverse story about our time and place, to be read, one hopes, for generations to come.