Thursday, May 03, 2018

The Flower Painter as Gardener

Crinum x powellii 1984 
Colour Study
Coral G Guest

As our National Gardening Week finds a warm and sunny Thursday here in the south east of England, I have returned from my travels to observe how the flowers are growing in the garden. Inclement weather has led me to return to our domestic enclave, taking refuge from the untamed denudation of landscape.
The quiet preoccupation of the naturalistic Flower Painter exists in contrast to the artist travelling through the wilderness. At home, I work in a studio that overlooks the garden. The work is observational and it seeks accuracy through the careful drawing and painting of plant subjects that I often grow myself.

Flower Painting has a curious and long historic connection to the occupation of gardening and horticulture. Flower Painting as a genre is a long held tradition. As a named way of working, it superseded the 'Botanical Art' label that we use today.

The flower painter’s correlation with gardening is endemic and has been documented literally as far back as the Romans and perhaps earlier. It follows a path to Medieval Europe in the form of the illuminated Books of Hours, the paintings of the Van Eyck brothers, then on to the landmark Renaissance art of Albrecht Dὒrer through the process of what came to be known historically as Naturalism.

Chapter three on the Rebirth of Naturalism within the classic text of The Art of Botanical Illustration by Wilfrid Blunt and William T. Stearn, offers an enchanting potted early history of the genre, in a nutshell. This chapter gently labels the watercolours of flowers by Drer as 'Flower Painting(s)'. 

The contemporary Flower Painter who follows this tradition in its ever evolving form, holds the fine art polarity that aims to complement the work of the Scientific Botanical Illustrator and the Botanical Illustrator who are securely connected to botanical science through devoted and exceptional service to scientific work and to plant identification. 

I am characteristically, first and foremost a painter and draughtswoman because my love of the natural world is expressed through observation that is creative rather than scientific. But strangely, this is somehow academic, because science is so often creative and drawing and painting are often measured, so there are points in time and history, where the two practices meet.

For me, the Flower Painter lives within a stream of awareness that is romantic in essence and follows an interest in art theory and the compelling artistic wish to understand truth that is philosophical in nature. As this cannot be proven it remains a reality in the consciousness of the artist and all who have an interest in this art.

It has been my deliberate and passionate intent throughout my work as a Flower Painter to personally free the genre from its connection to the still-life painting as it existed in post war Britain. This would be no disrespect to the genuine and most sincere art of the Floral Artists, as they were once known. Rather it is simply my way of running with what is purposeful to me.

By so doing, my hope has been to revive and breathe new life into the fine art of the Flower Painter by being true to its roots in naturalism that evolved through Albrecht Drer. 

This area of Flower Painting as a genre exists as separate from the work of modern flower painters such as Monet and Georgia O'Keeffe, both of whom were gardeners who expressed differing intents. The interest in aesthetics for both Monet and O'Keeffe are intellectual and not decorative. Such work was never created with the need to produce art that is aesthetically pleasing, but when it is not understood it may easily be misinterpreted and reduced to being aesthetically pleasing.

Drer was an art theorist as well as a gardener. He had an interest in early science but he was not an early scientist but rather someone who studied geometry and the art of proportion. 

Beyond this initial background interest connected with the observation of plant life, I have aimed to bring in other aspects of technique from 17th and 18th century landscape painting and contemporary colour mixing theory. This is all held in space and light through the developed understanding accrued from my training in large brush calligraphy in Japan.

Drer's art is described as ‘naturalistic’ rather than ‘scientific’ because his approach and thinking encapsulates a quest for the understanding of the truth of beauty through the depiction of flowering plants and other aspects of the natural world. Light was ever important to Drer as a painter. His art is all existent and connected under the aegis and the power of natural light, which enables imagery to be represented as real form, rather than as diagrammatic.

His work is not primarily about the attempt to understand the function of the plant scientifically. His drawings and paintings are an early representation of Fine Art in the true sense of the word, and represent his quest to be true to nature in a way that is both observational and ephemeral. 

In this evolving tradition, the naturalistic Flower Painter sees themselves as connected to the world on a series of levels that are physical, emotional, mental and spiritual.  I see these connections as profound and as something that is explored through the work at the same time as being fused into it.

The pursuit of truth through science takes a different route that is one of material facts, such as that of the later scientific work of the Bauer Brothers  who focused their artistic investigation towards the function and workings of the plant kingdom through the depiction of dissection and the need to develop botanical knowledge. 

Back to the activity of gardening: last week on Gardener’s World, Monty Don was talking about the curious and exotic Crinum x powellii and was filmed holding up a large and ugly looking bulb, which he thus planted in his garden. This inspired me to show you the above image of this plant that I grew and painted in 1984.

The bulb was obtained from the RHS nursery in Wisley. I travelled to Surrey on an overland bus from Victoria Station and bought the plant out of curiosity, having received good advice that it should be grown in a submerged pot against a sunny wall. This was an attempt to create similar temperatures of the kind it received in its natural habitat in South Africa. The first year it produced only leaves, in the sooty soil of a London garden. In the second year, in late summer, it gave an umbel of trumpet shaped flowers characteristic of its family Amaryllidaceae. The pot was excavated and brought into the studio and the plant was drawn and painted as a life size Colour Study. The power of gardening to inspire the artist is one often told by artists from Claude Monet to Cedric Morris and beyond to current contemporary painters.

When very young and financially struggling, I enjoyed a much-reduced garden. This amounted to a small collection of pots grown on a window ledge. Somehow it was always possible to cultivate a pot grown bulb, or tomatoes, or a lettuce in a window box. Gardeners are a global community, and if someone needs a seedling another gardener somehow always knows and will gift one. A garden can be tiny and yet live as very vast in the heart of the gardener whose passion is never reduced by the lack of wealth.  Gardening is a leveller in this sense.

Gardening to the Flower Painter is fundamentally the same as it is for all gardeners. It cultivates well-being alongside the flowers, it acts as a salve and generates food for thought as well as home grown edibles.

What more could a Flower Painter want than to have this very real connection to plant life through the actuality of gardening. Gardening needs no justification, no provenance, it only requires a little knowledge and a natural passion to bring the light sparkle of happiness back into the lives of we humans following the inward and dark days of wintertime.

Perhaps amazingly, almost bewilderingly, the coming weekend Bank Holiday has a forecast of fine weather. Happy gardening.