How legacy of Yorkshire botanical artist Mally Francis is living on in corner of Cornwall

The legacy of celebrated Yorkshire-born and raised botanical artist Mally Francis is continuing in a small corner of Cornwall. Chris Burn talks to her husband Charles.

Botanical Illustrator Mally Francis in her Sawpit Studio. Picture: Charles Francis.

Botanical artist Mally Francis is most associated with Cornwall thanks to her work with the Lost Gardens of Heligan and the Eden Project – but her story began in her beloved Yorkshire

Mally, who died in 2019 at the age of 72 from cancer, was born in Roundhay, Leeds, and spent most of her childhood in Bridlington before going to college in Edinburgh where she trained as a speech and language therapist. She moved to York to begin her career and met her husband Charles.

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Speaking to The Yorkshire Post over Zoom, Charles says: “For her, Yorkshire was home really. I moved up to York in 1967 and that was when we met. She was a speech and language therapist for children – it was something she had wanted to do from an early age.

Charles Francis, husband of the late botanical illustrator Mally Francis, photographed with some of Mally's famous illustrations in their house and studio in Cornwall. Picture: Ernesto Rogata.

“We lived together in York for six years which was lovely. We went to Bridlington very frequently to see her family.”

Charles says her interest in the natural world also blossomed in Yorkshire when she would go on country walks with her grandfather.

“As a child she would walk the lanes around Tadcaster and he would point out wildflowers to her. She always had an interest in it and she was also born with a painting skill.”

After the first of their two daughters were born, the family moved to Leicester for Charles’s work – a move which he says saw Mally “sobbing all the way down the motorway” as she was so sad to leave her life in Yorkshire behind. But it was in Leicester that she started on the path which would make her one of the country’s most acclaimed botanical artists.

Botanical Illustrator Mally Francis in Bridlington. Picture: Charles Francis.

In addition to working as a local magistrate, Mally saw an advert in the Leicester Mercury about botanical drawing classes and decided to sign up. She was taught by Anne-Marie Evans and went on to follow her principles and techniques after discovering a talent for the skill.

In an obituary to her on the British Botanical Artists’ website, Mally was quoted explaining what she loved about the process of drawing and painting plants.

“Once you start, botanical illustration gets under your skin,” she said. “The more you do, the more you see. What starts as a mild interest develops into complete absorption.  

“Walks in the country are the same as you become aware of the extraordinary and beautiful complexity of plants.”

Charles Francis, husband of the late botanical illustrator Mally Francis, photographed with some of Mally's famous illustrations in their house and studio in Cornwall. Picture: Ernesto Rogata.

Charles reflects today on what Mally enjoyed most about botanical art.

“I suppose the precision of it,” he says.

“One of the most difficult things if making objects look three-dimensional. There are ways of getting depth into a picture.

“She always wore her knowledge lightly. She didn’t walk around saying you must look at this and that but she obviously observed things as she was going along.”

In the 1990s, Mally and Charles moved again – this time ending up in Cornwall in the Wagon House on the Heligan Estate, where the Lost Gardens of Heligan had recently been restored by a team including Sir Tim Smit, the man who went on to create the world-famous Eden Project.

Charles explains the move came about somewhat by chance after a family holiday to Cornwall.

“In 1995 we went round the Gardens of Heligan and saw a ‘For Sale’ sign in the wall and thought it would be a nice place to live for someone,” he says. “We came back the following year and the ‘For Sale’ sign was still there. Mally said let’s buy the house. Within a few months, we moved in here.

“The house needed quite a lot of work doing to it. We did Bed & Breakfast for many years. Attached to art of the garden was what is now the studio and at the time it was a total ruin. In 1999, we did it so we could have a family party of the Millennium.”

It became known as the Sawpit Studio – used as a photographic studio by Charles and a botanical art studio by Mally.

The couple ran a bed and breakfast from the Wagon House, with guests staying to take classes with Mally in the centre of the Lost Gardens of Heligan.

At its height, Mally was teaching around 30 people a week the basics of botanical art.

Charles says the couple developed a great love for their adopted county.

“Cornwall is very special – the people who live down here wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. There is something about the area which gets you. We loved Yorkshire and the Lake District but we have been here almost 25 years now – it would have been hard to move anywhere else.”

Mally also went on to found the Eden Project Florilegium Society, basing this on the Chelsea Physic Garden Florilegium Society, of which she was a Fellow.  

Eden Project founder Sir Tim Smit asked her to provide the botanical illustrations for the bestselling book Heligan Wild, a Year of Nature in the Lost Gardens, with the paintings also used for an exhibition in London.

In 2018, the Association of British Botanical Artists chose Mally’s painting of Babington’s Leek Allium as the poster image for its exhibition In Ruskin’s Footsteps – Linking people to plants through botanical art at Lancaster University, an event was the UK part of Worldwide Botanical Art Day in which botanical artists around the world displayed their work in simultaneous exhibitions.

Charles adds of that painting: “Subsequently it was purchased by Dame Shirley Sherwood for her own collection of botanical art and exhibited at her eponymous gallery in Kew Gardens.”

One of her biggest impacts in the botanical art was her work with her students.

She organised numerous exhibitions of their work, while two of her former students have gone on to win Gold Medals at RHS botanical art shows.

One of those gold medal-winning former students is Laura Silburn, who has taken on Mally’s mantle and teaches botanical classes at the Sawpit Studios.

Charles explains: “Laura had been a regular in the class for several years. When Mally became ill, she started to teach the other members of the class.”

He says it is moving to see Mally’s legacy continue after her death.

Mally was just 72 when she died and Charles says she is much missed by all those that knew her.

“We had 50 years of happy marriage. She had masses of friends - although I was from Leicester in our time there she had many more friends than I did. She was a very generous spirit and achieved so much. When I wrote the eulogy for her funeral it went on for pages of A4.”

He says the couple also felt very grateful to have extra years together after Mally nearly died in 2013 where her heart stopped for eight minutes and she required a triple heart bypass. 
“She had another five years of perfect health and a full life after that which we felt really blessed by.”

Courses continue at the Sawpit studio

Laura Silburn now teaches weekly botanical art classes at the Sawpit Studio, with courses running for 10 weeks and involving one day a week on either Tuesdays or Wednesdays.

In September a special four-day course will be hosted at the studio, which includes a two-course lunch each day.

Laura says: “From Fuschias to Rudbeckias and Gladioli to Kniphofias, September has a lot to offer with an array of different shapes of flowers giving us a late summer show. We will be in the wonderful Sawpit Studio at Heligan to look at why flowers have so many variations of shape and why we need to show this in botanical art as well as looking at the techniques botanical artists use to do this.”

For more information, visit laurasilburn.co.uk.

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