SALLY Strawson has been part of an international team painting flowers for Prince Charles. Michael Hickling reports. Pictures by Gary Longbottom.
It’s hard to think of any artistic enterprise, unless you care to include cathedrals, which can take as long to complete as a Florilegium.
These are books of flowers and plants originally compiled as much for scientific and documentary purposes as for artistic ones in the days before photography.
It took 122 years before one of them, called Flora Danica. was finished. And the exotic floral and plant-life discovered and recorded by Captain Cook’s men aboard the Endeavour in the Pacific did not finally get published until 20 years ago.
Compared with those timelines, Sally Strawson’s has passed by in a flash. It has taken a mere eight years to bring out the Highgrove Florilegium illustrating Prince Charles’s flowers in his garden at Highgrove.
That’s how long the process took from first discussions with the Prince to publication of a work which you won’t find in your local bookshop. It costs just a shade under £13,000, stands over two feet high and only 175 copies have been published.
Sally, a botanical artist originally from from Doncaster, was one of the international team of artists invited to contribute flower paintings. She chose to do two, one of an Acer japonicus Vitifolium and the other of Caleceolaria integrifolia, also known as Slipper Wort.
“The Florilegium was the first one in England since the 1790s,” says Sally. “It’s such a major undertaking, it’s the kind of thing the 18th century French court would have commissioned.
“It’s where art and the sciences meet. Pre-photography they were used used to record plants for medicinal purposes and on voyages of discovery. As times went by they became more decorative.”
Sally trained at Doncaster School of Art, took a design degree in Kingston upon Thames and began her working life as an interior designer. Then she got married and had two children, now aged 15 and 17.
“I didn’t get the career going again so I drew at home and painted plants. I’ve always loved gardening and colour, form, textures always fascinated me. I also like the detail side, the technical side, the structure.”
Ten years ago in Country Living magazine she read an article about Anne Marie Evans, one of the leading lights in this field and signed up for one of her residential courses. “She said to me, ‘you’ll know very quickly if you’re going to love this or not’. I knew instantly I loved it. I loved the whole aspect of it. I go back every year.”
Sally now lives near Grimsby where she has “a big garden bursting with plants”. “That’s where it came from – just that love of plants, painting and design.”
We meet at Rhs Harlow Carr at Harrogate where one of the two-volume sets of the Highgrove Florilegium is on display in their library for the next few weeks.
“Having decided which specimen to choose, you look in detail at how the plants is formed, how it grows, its habitat, characteristics,” says Sally. “I dissect it under the microscope to see how it fits together. I do quite a few sketches and try and come to a drawing. A composition follows to see how it best fits the paper. You can see how it’s a gradual process.
“Painting starts with a slightly tinted water base, then you use soft watercolours and gently layer them on top of each other.
“I love the challenge of all kinds of plants, the amazing infrastructure. Acers are bold plants and also fairly delicate.
“The leaves seem to float like little umbrellas.
“I particularly like the acer’s incredible range of colour. The leaves are a vivid lime green that change from a yellowing green to the deepest shades of reddy plum. You have tiny flowers in Spring, little sycamore wind seeds.”
Photos of them won’t do as a model. “It has to be grown and observed, so you see it through season by season. You need to watch how it evolves, so you start a piece of work then put it away until the plant changes. You catch the bloom and the blossom, the matured seedling.”
So before going any further with her Royal project, Sally had a word locally. “I have a friend with a nursery near home and when I asked him, he said, ‘would you believe it, I have one in’.
“The other one I’ve done for the Florilegium, a spindly plant, caleceolaria integrifolia, was popular in Victorian times when they were known as pocket flowers.” She sent to Highgrove nursery for the pocket flowers and grew them in her garden.
“They were very helpful, it’s part of a long process. It’s difficult to say how long one painting takes, I work when the children aren’t on holiday. The acer painting took took 150 hours.
“It was a wonderful thing to be part of. Everyone was so determined to get it right, There were no constraints on us, apart from the size of the paper and there were quite a few interpretations and contemporary takes.”
All the team’s paintings were submitted to a selection committee of botanists and artists before Prince Charles invited them all down for a tour of his garden and to see the plants they had portrayed.
“When we came into Highgrove all the paintings were laid out on a long table. Everyone stood by their paintings and he walked along the line. He spent about five minutes with every one and asked what we thought of the garden.
“He is incredibly knowledgeable. The acer he said is one of his favourite types. It’s planted in the arboretum and that’s where my specimen was.”
There is an established Yorkshire enthusiam for this work in the shape of Sheffield Florilegium Society where Sally is also a member. Their paintings, all of specimens in the Sheffield botanical gardens, are being created for an online archive.
“There seems to be a growing popularity recently, a re-emergence of what was not a particularly popular sort of art,” says Sally. “Those getting involved tend not to be younger people because it’s so time-consuming. It does seem to appeal to people who have been doctors or in science. It’s the meeting point between them and art.
“I always work from life. There’s no substitute for that because you need to look at a flower three-dimensionally.
“You separate the flower to see how the stamens are attached. It can be frustrating because it dies off pretty quickly. That’s why you need to do lots of sketches, so that when you come to the composition it’s all done in part form. I spend quite a bit of time doing colour samples which you note in your rough work, so you have got all that referenced. I work in my studio at home with a north-facing window. It’s difficult to do the work at night and in the winter because artificial light is not the same.
“The majority of artists work in watercolours, although a growing band use coloured pencils and also pen and ink.
Traditional watercolour is probably still preferred. It has a lovely translucency, you can layer wash over wash.
“I have a strong feeling for the plants, they become your friend. You sit for hours, you and the plant. You get to understand them so well. It’s hypnotic.”
Does she talk to them?
“I can’t possibly comment on that. Nice try.”
WHY YOU CAN’T HURRY THE COMPLETION OF A FLORILEGIUM, A BOOK WHERE WHERE ART AND SCIENCE MEET
The forerunner of the Florilegium was the 15th century herbal – a book detailing the usefulness or otherwise of plants in the kitchen and for medicinal purposes.
The revolution in printing coincided with new plants finding their way into Europe from the East and the New World where wealthy individuals and botanic gardens had the funds to commission artists.
The first florilegium by Adrian Collaert came out in 1590. Emanuel Sweerts version in 1612 was probably the first nursery catalogue ever produced.
One of the best known of these botanical artists was Pierre-Joseph Redouté, a Belgian who became Marie Antoinette’s court painter. When this patron fell by the wayside, he found no difficulty in attracting another and kept going throughout the Reign of Terror, quietly recording for the revolutionaries what was in the gardens they had seized from the old regime. When they were in turn overthrown, Redouté worked for French royal patrons once more.
One of the great sea voyages of history provided the material for perhaps the most fascinating Florilegium of all. Specimens collected by Sir Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander as they journeyed with Captain Cook between 1768 and 1771 were examined by an artist aboard the Endeavour called Sydney Parkinson.
He drew them, made notes on their colour and painted some watercolours.
Back in London, Joseph Banks commissioned a team of artists to make watercolours of all of Parkinson’s drawings and then to make engravings of them.
They fell out over the ownership of Sydney Parkinson’s work and it was not until the years between 1980-1990 that this Florilegium was finally published.