What better place to hold the biggest botanical art exhibition ever seen in Australia, than Ballarat, a city renowned for its floral festivities. Capturing Flora: 300 years of Australian botanical art, now showing at the Art Gallery of Ballarat, celebrates Australia’s unique flora through the fine tradition of botanical art.
Miss Maund, Benjamin Maund, publisher. Telopea speciosissima, Waratah, 1837-1842 from Maund’s The Botanist, handcoloured engraving on paper. Collection: Art Gallery of Ballarat. Purchased with funds from the Joe White Bequest, 2010.
The exhibition features over 400 works by botanical artists from the 18th century to the present day. It includes rare prints of plants that William Dampier found on his visit to the Kimberley in 1699, through to recent works by Australia’s contemporary botanical artists such as Jenny Phillips and Anita Barley.
The botanical art genre has changed over time, shaped by historical events and the mores of different eras. One part of the exhibition focuses on the period of the early explorers, and includes images of plants collected by the English explorers Dampier, Cook and Flinders, and the Frenchmen Peron and Dumont d’Urville. Another section highlights the link between research and art and gives special billing to Ferdinand von Mueller, the first director of the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne and the instigator of many botanical gardens and collections. The exhibition also highlights the female artists who made a significant contribution to the recording and popularisation of Australian plants.
Robyn Mayo, Tropical Banksia with insects, 1996. Etching. Collection: Art Gallery of Ballarat. Purchased with funds from the Joe White Bequest, 2011.
Gordon Morrison, Director of the Art Gallery of Ballarat, and the curator of Capturing Flora: 300 years of Australian botanical art, has been working towards this exhibition for the past 4 years. He is passionate about botanical art and says the exhibition is “a much needed tribute to the tradition and practice of botanic art in Australia”. Many of the works in the exhibition are from the Gallery’s own holdings of botanical art, the vast majority of which have been collected in recent years.
So, what is so special about botanical art? Gordon Morrison offers us some insights into this often undervalued art genre.
“Botanical art, scientifically accurate renderings of plant species, has been with us for a very long time as an art form that has been always been linked with science. When used by a medieval doctor the accuracy of a botanical illustration could be a matter of life and death.
It is the inherent link between science and art that makes botanical art fascinating. We are culturally attuned to thinking of plants, particularly flowers, as beautiful. However for a botanical artist the aesthetic appeal of a plant is tangential. Capturing beauty is not the primary objective when a botanical artist records a plant’s ‘vital visual statistics’. The appearance of reality is the core aim – a characteristic once referred to as ‘verisimilitude’.
Since the time of the great Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus, botanical illustrations have been an integral tool in helping to identify a plant as coming from a unique species. Linnaeus and his successors developed an elaborate method of classification for plants which depended initially on the number and shape of parts of the flowers and seeds and later on a wider range of characteristics, including leaf shape. This explains why in the most fully developed botanical illustrations, one encounters an array of dissected flower-parts and seeds.
The fact that an artist could arrange all these elements in a single drawing explains why herbaria and botanic gardens still employ artists trained in this sort of visual documentation. It is often those strange outsized stigmas, anthers and seed receptacles that give a botanical illustration an aura that is magical rather than mundane. The irony is that their purpose on the page is purely functional.
Louis VAN HOUTTE artist Brachychiton bidwilli 1858 plate from van Houtte’s Flore des Serres, colour lithograph on paper, 24.7 x 16.3 cm. Collection: Art Gallery of Ballarat. Purchased with funds from the Hilton White Bequest 2012.
Margaret Flockton, Blandfordia nobilis, Sm. & Blechnum cartilagineum Swartz., Christmas Bells and Ferns, 1902. Lithograph on paper. Collection: Art Gallery of Ballarat. Purchased with funds from the Joe White Bequest, 2012.
In terms of its botanical record Australia was fortunate to have been seriously explored by Europeans during the exact time when the sciences were assuming a dominant role in society, a role that in previous centuries had been occupied by the Church. Each of the great voyages to, and landfalls in the continent, from the time of Dampier until Dumont d’Urville, involved the collecting of plant specimens and artists were present on all of these enterprises from Cook’s first voyage. Some of these were talents of the very highest calibre. Ferdinand Bauer, artist on Matthew Flinders’ 1801 exploration of South Western Australia, is known in some circles as the Leonardo of Botanical Art.
It also helped that the Australian flora was almost entirely new – highly distinctive and often weirdly beautiful. It is difficult for us to appreciate the wonder and excitement that must have attended the first European encounter with a woolly Banksia or a Waratah.
Henry ANDREWS artist, Banksia serrata 1800 plate 82 from Andrews’ The Botanist’s Repository, engraving on paper, hand coloured with gum arabic, 26.8 x 20.6cm. Collection: Art Gallery of Ballarat. Purchased with funds from the Ferry Foundation, 2011.
The visual arts world has always been a very hierarchical one. Some genres, and therefore particular artists, have enjoyed higher status than others. During the Renaissance the portrait held primacy. The seventeenth century Dutch admired Still Life, and for the Romantics, Landscape was the pinnacle of expression. In spite of the fact that artists as illustrious as Leonardo da Vinci and Albrecht Dürer produced fantastic botanical drawings, the fact that it is an art form bonded to another discipline has led to it being dismissed in the past as not quite ‘real art’ or mere documentation.
In the 21st century these distinctions and hierarchical divisions seem as outmoded as ancien regime theories about social ranking.
It is time to look at botanical art for what it has to offer and to judge it by its own standards.”