Of Green Leaf, Bird & Flower

Elisabeth Fairman, the curator of rare books at the Yale Center for British Art, took us on a tour of the exhibition she has organised about traditions of British botanical illustration, partly inspired the Helmingham Herbal which Paul Mellon acquired and reproduced for the Roxburghe Club.   I particularly enjoyed two astonishing gouaches of two goldfinches by Peter Brown, a Danish naturalist, who apparently exhibited work as a flower painter in the early days of exhibitions at the RA.   The point of the exhibition is to show not just the work of well-known artists, although there are plenty of those, but more the drawings and illustrations of passionate amateurs and enthusiasts who went out into the countryside to record the natural world.   They include, for example, a Miss Rowe who arranged botanical specimens in envelopes illustrated with appropriate watercolours for a competition organised by the Liverpool Naturalists’ Field Club.   I had never seen watercolours by William Henry Hunt, known as birds-nest Hunt, whose work was much admired by Ruskin:

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I liked the botanical models which were apparently used for demonstration purposes in Victorian natural history collections, but are now hard to find:

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It was also interesting to see the range of contemporary artists who have worked in the field of botanical illustration, loosely described, including Marc Quinn, Richard Long and Michael Landy, and ending up with a room devoted to the work of Ian Hamilton Finlay, as seen by Eileen Hogan:

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Amongst the contemporary collections, we were pleased to find the notebooks kept by Charlotte Verity when she was Artist-in-Residence at the Museum of Garden History:

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