How art shapes our understanding of plants – and reveals wonders photographs can miss

“You can get a lot more information encapsulated in a single picture.” Botanical art was historically a key tool in describing plants – and as this exhibition demonstrates, little has changed.

Published 20 Apr 2022, 12:31 BST
Lucy Smith's image of the ephemeral Victoria amazonica plant. Native to tropical regions of South America, it ...

Lucy Smith's image of the ephemeral Victoria amazonica plant. Native to tropical regions of South America, it is the national flower of Guyana.  

Photograph by Lucy Smith / Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew

For only two evenings every year, the Victoria amazonica water lily opens up its white flower buds. On the first evening, by giving off an irresistible odour, it lures in scarab beetles which become trapped inside as the flower closes back up at night. On the second evening, the beetles are released to pollinate further flowers.

You’d have to travel to the tropics of South America to observe this phenomenon in the wild; or to Kew Gardens in west London. At the latter, every July, in-house botanical artist Lucy Smith sits patiently beside the pond in the water lily house, waiting for Victoria amazonica to work its magic. Once the buds have unfurled, in painstaking detail she draws and paints what she sees. She says the ephemerality of the flowering makes her task all the more special.

“The flowers develop underwater. Then finally they emerge from beneath the surface, only one at a time, opening and closing over two nights, changing form and colour dramatically in between,” she tells National Geographic UK. 

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Inside the Waterlily house at Kew Gardens, London.

Photograph by Manfred Gottschalk / Alamy

A UNESCO Heritage Site, Kew Gardens covers 500 acres of West London and houses over 50,000 living plants. The site is also home to the National Archives.

Photograph by photozek07 / Stockimo / Alamy

Smith is one of a dozen or so regular botanical artists working in Kew Gardens’ herbarium. There are over seven million preserved plant specimens here, collected around the world during the last 170 years, as well as an adjoining library with more than 200,000 botanical illustrations.

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The artists provide a crucial service, working in tandem with botanists to create a definitive scientific record of plant species – sometimes newly discovered ones – from all over the planet. Depicted in pen and ink, or watercolour paint, their illustrations appear in inventories, journals, field guides and magazines. “We bring the botanists’ words to life,” Smith says.

Viola 'Molly Sanderson', by Riu Jiang. With her paintings of violets, Rui Jiang pays tribute to the classical style of the 17th and 18th century botanical artists. “Flowers from the Violaceae [family] have been a large part of our past, being made into pleasing perfumes and love potions, as well as charming, sweet treats and medicine to cure headaches,” she says. “They also symbolise the beginning of spring as they are the first blooming, letting us escape from the coldness of winter.”

Photograph by Rui Jiang / RHS Botanical Art and Photography Show 2022

Viola 'Nora,' by Rui Jiang. Although she also takes photographs, it’s the medium of painting that inspires Jiang most. “To be honest, the camera will never catch the true colour that I can see with my own eyes.”

Photograph by Rui Jiang / RHS Botanical Art and Photography Show 2022

‘Pink Halo,' by Rui Jiang. She says, “The best botanical art successfully combines scientific accuracy with visual appeal. Before painting on paper, you have to think about the form, colour, character and detail of a plant, and observe the specimen from all different angles. The-well arranged composition by botanical artists is the beauty of the painting that the camera will never be able to achieve.”  

Photograph by Rui Jiang / RHS Botanical Art and Photography Show 2022

This April, some of the world’s greatest botanical artists are displaying their work at the RHS Botanical Art & Photography Show, at London’s Saatchi Gallery. The curator of the show is Charlotte Brooks, from the RHS Lindley Library, a huge horticultural library, also in London.

This year Brooks is presenting around 150 illustrations from 23 different artists, in media ranging from pen and ink, coloured pencil and graphite to watercolour and acrylic paint, all competing for an RHS medal.

“It’s a combination of skills,” she tells National Geographic UK. “The technical ability to draw accurately, to observe and really understand your subject, and translate that into an illustration that is beautifully coloured and presented, and which draws the viewer in to know more about the plant. The artists need some botanical knowledge too.”

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Interpretation vs reality

There’s no disputing the skill and beauty of the works on display. But what scientific function do they serve in a world where every botanist in the field is armed with cameras and plant identification apps?

“One of the difficulties with using just a single photograph is that it’s taken at a given moment in time,” Brooks adds. “Botanical artists, on the other hand, perhaps include life-cycle information from bud to bloom. They might show a point of decay. You can get a lot more information encapsulated in a single picture.”

Lathyrus japonicus, by Mitsuko Kurashina. The Japanese artist has chosen to depict plants that, despite vast amounts of radiation, have thrived in the forests, beaches, swamps and lagoons of Japan’s northeast coastal region during the years following the devastating 2011 tsunami. 

Photograph by Mitsuko KURASHINA / RHS Botanical Art and Photography Show 2022

Pontederia korsakowii, by Mitsuko Kurashina. Kurashina describes her process on her website: “The most important thing when drawing plants is fieldwork. I begin with walking around mountains and fields to observe the plants and the surrounding environment. This is because there are differences in colour, shapes and sizes depending on the surrounding environment even if it is the same kind of plant.”

Photograph by Mitsuko KURASHINA / RHS Botanical Art and Photography Show 2022

Tournefortia sibirica, by Mitsuko Kurashina. Kurashina says her style is based on a traditional method for dyeing kimonos.

Photograph by Mitsuko KURASHINA / RHS Botanical Art and Photography Show 2022

She explains how botanical paintings also better represent the range of subtle colours in any given plant. “Take an orchid,” she says. “At first glance it might appear to be white but when you start looking at it closely, it might have a subtle pale pink tinge or a slight sparkle to it.”

A ‘species in one image’

Smith points out how, in the field, it’s not always practical for botanists to use photography for plant identification, or taxonomy, as it’s known. They might find themselves deep in a rainforest, collecting hundreds of specimens. To preserve them for the long journey home requires pressing, which inevitably dries out and flattens many of the plant’s living details.

Once back at Kew Gardens, Smith breathes new life into the dead, pressed plants, soaking or boiling flowers or fruits in water. She will view certain parts under a microscope.

“Using our knowledge of botany, we can clarify things in an informed way,” she says. “We know what’s important and what’s not important to emphasise [in an illustration]. We can draw elements in a smaller size or at an enlarged size. We can dissect plants to show how the parts are put together. We can encapsulate an entire plant species in one image.”

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Currently Smith is working on a long-term project to illustrate a compendium of all the palms of New Guinea. In one of the 250 illustrations she has so far completed, there are multiple elements drawn in detail: the main leaves, the smaller leaflets, the crown, the flower-bearing stalks, the male flowers, the female flowers, the fruit, the buds, even the dissected buds – features which might not be visible from a photo. “Different stages of the life cycle, all in one image,” she adds. “As much information as possible. You’re showing exactly what’s needed to identify a plant.”

Phacelia Pollen, as painted by Georgia Danvers. Danvers specialises in painting pollen grains, normally visible only through a scanning electron microscope. 

Photograph by Georgia DANVERS / RHS Botanical Art and Photography Show 2022

Rosebay Willow Herb, by Georgia Danvers. Danvers works from images supplied by the Department of Genetics and Genome Biology at the University of Leicester. “I want to allow the viewer to see what cannot be seen with the naked eye,” she says.  

Photograph by Georgia DANVERS / RHS Botanical Art and Photography Show 2022

Sunflower Pollen, by Georgia Danvers. “It is very important that my work is educational together with botanical and biological accuracy.” she says. “I am aiming to help people understand the importance of pollen and how it relates to the past, present and future in the study of the natural world.”

Photograph by Georgia DANVERS / RHS Botanical Art and Photography Show 2022

A short history of botanical art

It was during the medieval Renaissance that botanical art and illustration first blossomed. However, its origins date back far earlier; as early as the 15th century BC, according to Wilfrid Blunt, author of The Art of Botanical Illustration. He describes how, near the Egyptian city of Luxor, in the ruined Temple of Thutmose III, there are some limestone bas-reliefs showing some of the earliest botanical illustrations ever discovered. Featuring 275 or so plants, they record the spoils brought home by the pharaoh Thutmose III from his military campaigns in Syria.

But it was the scientists and artists of the Renaissance, most famously Leonardo da Vinci and Albrecht Durer, who set out the stall for botanical illustration as we know it. By the 1600s, wealthy patrons across Europe were commissioning artists to paint the plants and flowers growing in their sizeable gardens. This led to a trend for florilegia (books featuring illustrations of ornamental plants), in addition to the existing herbals (books on medicinal plants).

(See the Queen's private collection of Da Vinci's works.)

Cyclamen persicum, by Shirley Slocock. Using pencil and watercolour paint, Slocock says she enjoys painting “sculptural shapes”. “These can be found in a variety of plant life including seed heads, flowers, shrubs and often vegetables,” she adds. “Generally I prefer illustrating strong shapes with visual impact rather than delicate ones.”

Photograph by Shirley SLOCOCK / RHS Botanical Art and Photography Show 2022

Ulex Europeans, by Shirley Slocock. Slocock describes the advantage of illustration over photography: “Originally the purpose of botanical illustration was to identify and make a permanent highly detailed record of a plant. This was particularly useful for medicinal, culinary and scientific purposes.”

Photograph by Shirley SLOCOCK / RHS Botanical Art and Photography Show 2022

Polystichum setiferum, by Shirley Slocock. She adds of modern botanical illustrations that they “It remains an invaluable source of information for botanists today as it has the advantage of showing, on one page, various surfaces, joints, colour variations and cross sections of a plant very accurately.”

Photograph by Shirley SLOCOCK / RHS Botanical Art and Photography Show 2022

As European explorers colonised the new world, botanical artists would often accompany scientists on their travels, recording the new species they discovered. Back in Europe, horticulturalists employed artists to paint alluring images of the plants and flowers they put on sale.

By the 1700s Swedish taxonomist Carl Linnaeus had founded a system of biological classification which encouraged many scientists to back up their research with highly accurate botanical images. Three key 18th century artists who came to the fore were German Georg Ehret and Austrians Franz and Ferdinand Bauer – all three still considered among the most influential European botanical artists of all time. Other luminaries to follow in their footsteps included Belgian Pierre-Joseph Redouté (1759-1840), who became the official court artist of Marie Antionette; Scotsman Walter Hood Fitch (1817-1892), who was the official artist at Kew Gardens; and Margaret Mee (1909-1988), who specialised in plants from the Amazon.

From 1787 onwards, much of the most important work in this field appeared in a publication called Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, which is still published by Kew Gardens today.

Old media such as drawings, paintings and print magazines have served botany well over the centuries. But will there still be an appetite for them in the digital age, when millions of plants from all corners of the planet have been documented in the finest detail online?

Science, art, both

In his book The Art of Botanical Illustration – which was published in 1950, long before the internet and computer apps existed – Blunt specifies how botanical artists are neither pure artists nor pure scientists, but an amalgamation of the two.

“The botanical artist finds himself at once and always in a dilemma: is he the servant of Science or of Art? There can, I think, be no doubt that he must learn to serve both masters. The greatest flower painters 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.”

Back at Kew Gardens, Smith agrees with that sentiment. “We’re putting our knowledge, our understanding and our interpretation into it. It’s quite a responsibility to do that properly and not take any liberties, whilst trying to balance scientific understanding with aesthetic values.

“We’re doing this because we all love plants and we want to communicate that. That’s where the passion comes in. As artists, we are trying to show the absolute truth.”

The RHS Botanical Art & Photography Show 2022 at Saatchi Gallery runs from 9-29 April 2022. 

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