Botanical Britain: Art

3a North

Marianne North Gallery at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

When I began to take this blog seriously, I wrote a series of posts on art and herbaria.  The first in that series was on Victoria Crowe, who has long lived in Scotland and is renowned there.  When she was commissioned to paint a portrait of David Ingram, then Master of St. Catherine’s College at Cambridge University, she wanted to include images from his work as a plant pathologist.  This sparked conversations between them about herbaria.  Crowe became interested (of course!) and ended up spending time in the herbarium and library at Cambridge University.  Ultimately this led to an exhibition called Plant Memory, for which Ingram contributed to the catalogue (Crowe & Ingram, 2007).  Included was a delicate watercolor of a herbarium specimen, even showing how it was taped to the page.  They also published an article (Crowe and Ingram, 2007) based on a lecture they gave, in which Crowe described being struck by the “tension between timelessness and fragility” in specimens.  This phrase has stuck with me as being a very artistic and also philosophic way of thinking about them.

In writing about Crowe, I wanted to include an image of her work in my blog, but hesitated contacting an artist of her stature.  Finally, I did it, and she very graciously sent me not one, but several images, and also some publications on her work.  Needless to say, I was thrilled.  But it got even better because she passed my email address on to David Ingram, and we began writing to each other.  Ingram was not only at Cambridge, but had also spent several years as director of the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh.  In retirement, he has written widely on art and botany, including work on John Ruskin (2011), the textile artist and entrepreneur Annie Garnett (Ingram & Roberts 2017), and the French glass artist Emile Gallé (Coutts & Ingram, 2012).  When I was in Edinburgh, I had the opportunity to have conversations with both Ingram and Crowe.  These experiences were memorable.   I will write in more detail later, but here I just want to say that I found it very encouraging that people of this stature are convinced of the profound relationship that exists between art and science, and they both speak from much experience.  For many years, Crowe taught classes, including botanical art, at the Edinburgh College of Art.  In addition, she has painted many portraits including those of such scientific luminaries as the physicist Peter Higgs and the astronomer Jocelyn Bell Burnell.  Ingram’s interest in art and botany is related to his years of research on plant pathogens when he translated his observations under the microscope into drawings as part of his practice.

When I went to London, I met another one of my email friends, Laurence Hill, a photographer who specializes in the genus Fritillaria, though this description fails to get at the heart of what Hill does.  On his website, Fritillaria Icones, he documents each species in the genus, recording the entire plant in bloom, including bulb and roots, as well as the structure of the flowers and seeds.  All these images and related data are available on the website under a Creative Commons 4.0 license.  He has also created large-scale works that have been exhibited at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery at Kew Botanic Garden and won prizes in Royal Horticultural Society photographic competitions.  I was thrilled to finally meet Hill and see some of his work in its true dimensions rather than on a computer screen.  I’ll go into more detail in the future, but I do want to say that what is most impressive about Hill’s photographs is the meticulous work that goes into them.  Each is the result of digitally stitching and stacking together many images to make a whole that has great clarity even at high magnification.  The only problem is that his website is addictive and hard to leave because there’s so much to explore.

Besides these three great conversations, I also saw a lot of other impressive art, botanically related of course.  At the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew alone, there was the Marianne North Gallery with hundreds of oils done by this 19th-century botanical explorer (see photo above), and close-by the Shirley Sherwood Gallery with two botanical art exhibits, one on the history of the recently renovated Temperate Glass House and the other on Australian botanical art.  In the Kew Gardens Gallery, I was delighted to find dozens of leaves from the diaries of the 19th-century orchid specialist John Day that are filled with his watercolors as well as his notes.  I have a book on these (Cribb & Tibbs, 2004), but seeing them in person was exciting.  Also exciting was finding at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh a copy of the huge triptych of the titan arum Amorphophallus titanum painted by Isik Güner, Jacqui Pestell, and Sharon Tingey when it was blooming at the garden.

3b Loudon Lemons

Selection of wax models if lemons from the George Loudon Collection in the Surreal Science exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery, London.

In London, I went to two notable exhibits that were botanically related.  One was Fashioned from Nature at the Victoria & Albert Museum and dealt with a multitude of aspects of how animals and plants are used in clothing.  It was very cleverly done, with not only obvious things like feathered hats, but also new technologies that produce leather-like material from fungi and cloth from microbes.  On my last day, I went to the Whitechapel Gallery to see Science Surreal, an exhibit of portions of George Loudon’s natural history materials that he has amassed from the discards of old collections.  In this case, they were paired with ceramics in a surrealistic display by Salvatore Arancio.  My favorites were the fungi models made from velvet (see photo above) and Italian wax representations of oddly shaped lemons.  If you would like to see these and other marvels, Loudon (2015) has written a book on his collection.


Coutts, H., & Ingram, D. S. (2012). Emile Gallé’s verre d’eau at the Bowes Museum:
A detailed study of the motifs. The Decorative Arts Society Journal, 38, 82–87.

Cribb, P., & Tibbs, M. (2004). A Very Victorian Passion: The Orchid Paintings of John Day 1863-1888. London, UK: Thames and Hudson.

Crowe, V., & Ingram, D. (2007b). Plant Memory. Edinburgh, UK: Royal Scottish Academy.

Ingram, David S., & Wildman, S. (2011). Ruskin’s Flora: The Botanical Drawings of John Ruskin. Lancaster, UK: The Ruskin Library and Research Centre.

Ingram, D.S., & Roberts, R. (2017). Spinning the Colours of Lakeland: Annie Garnett’s Spinnery, Textiles and Garden. Bowness-on-Windermere, UK: Lakeland Arts Trust.

Loudon, G. (2015). Object Lessons. London, UK: Ridinghouse.

Note:  There is no way I can thank Victoria Crowe, David Ingram, and Laurence Hill for their willingness to share their time and ideas with me.  My visits with them were my most meaningful experiences in Britain.

Herbaria and Art: Victoria Crowe and Plant Memory

I am returning to this blog which I began last year and then neglected.  Now I am beginning again with a series of posts on how herbarium collections and the idea of the herbarium are used by artists in their work.  I am beginning with one of my favorite artists, Victoria Crowe, whom I discovered through her plant images but whom I’ve come to value for the broad spectrum of her art.  I am grateful to her for allowing me to reproduce several of her works here.


Iris albican, watercolor by Victoria Crowe

Victoria Crowe is a noted British artist who discovered the herbarium world over a decade ago. A faculty member at the Edinburgh College of Art, she is a versatile painter known for her portraits and also for her flower paintings. In fact, when Elizabeth Blackadder retired from ECA, Crowe took over her botanical art class. It was these two strains in her work that led to a commission to paint a portrait of David Ingram, then Master of St. Catharine’s College, Cambridge University. Since Ingram is a botanist, Crowe wanted to include evidence of his work in the painting’s background; this included enlarged microscopic images, a cross-section through a flower, and a herbarium specimen—a brownish pressed plant. The species was carefully chosen; it was Sibbaldia procumbens, a plant of the Scottish highlands named after Robert Sibbald, a founder of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE). To find a model for this plant, Crowe visited the Cambridge Herbarium and was so impressed by the specimens she saw that she later worked there and in the Cambridge Library as a visiting scholar. This led to an exhibit at St. Catharine’s that explored botanical illustration in early printed herbals. It also resulted in an exhibit called Plant Memory at the Royal Scottish Academy in 2007. In a lecture on the exhibit, Ingram notes that “Crowe found embodied in a herbarium sheet the same tension between timelessness and fragility which is the hallmark of her work as an artist” (Crowe & Ingram, 2007, p. 2). When she did research at the Cambridge Herbarium, she was particularly struck by “fragile Iris specimens, gradually fading as they went further back in time, and realized that she had found a new source of artistic inspiration” (p. 2).


Five Species, Senecio paludus Fen Wort by Victoria Crowe

Timelessness and fragility—this comes very close to the essence of an herbarium collection. If well cared for it can last indefinitely, but it’s easily gone in an instant in a flood or a fire or an insect infestation. And though timeless, specimens are not changeless. They have already been transformed—pressed flat and dry—in order to be timeless. Just as an artist may paint a flower removed from its habitat, so the botanist removes the plant in order to preserve the information it contains. Art and science use a specimen in very different ways, but as Crowe and Ingram explored their different worlds, they saw the connections between them, especially in the past when early modern botany developed primarily thanks to empirically accurate images in such herbals as those of Otto Brunfels and Leonhart Fuchs. They also came to appreciate that the two fields parted company as artists moved away from empiricism in their attempts to portray different modes of life and the multiplicity of levels that make up human experience. It is these levels that are represented in all of Crowe’s work which balances the objective and subjective, often by layerings of multimedia. Screen print, etching, and transfer printing are combined with drawings, watercolor and impressions of plants. There are also texts and illustrations from botanical books. Duncan Macmillan (2012) notes that in Plant Memory, “the fragility and beauty of the herbarium specimens is a constant theme, but it is layered and combined with other things in a way that extends its relevance beyond botany to life itself and the role of memory in our understanding.”


Madonna Lily by Victoria Crowe

This is not a viewpoint often considered by the taxonomists and ecologists who work with specimens nor by the countless interns, volunteers, and herbarium staff workers who digitize specimens to make them available to a larger audience. However, I argue here that this larger audience includes artists, and in several subsequent posts, that those involved in broadening the appreciation of herbaria should definitely take note of this group. Yes, herbarium workers will often stop to appreciate the beauty of a particular specimen or the skillful way it was mounted, but artists like Crowe are dealing with specimens at a much deeper level, and exploring their metaphorical significance. Memory has become an important theme for Crowe since the death of her son from leukemia in 1994, and flowers are integral to many of the paintings she created in response to his death. But Macmillan (2012) notes further that for Crowe, “memory is seen not only as a faculty of the individual, but through art and books, the herbaria themselves, and all the other ways in which we accumulate knowledge and hand it on from generation to generation, as a marvelous form of collective memory” (p. 109). When working with specimens in order to publish on a taxon revision or to pin down changes in phenology over time, it isn’t easy to keep in mind these other layers that attach to the specimens: the lives of those who collected and annotated them, the intrinsic beauty of the material and its arrangement, and the ways in which the specimen may have moved about in trade among collectors or because of the disappearance of herbaria. This litany gives some appreciation for the many ways herbaria can attract artists and in turn, deepen the meaning of the collections.

A number of botanical institutions have collaborated with artists in recent years, resulting in an interesting body of work. Crowe is probably the most distinguished in this group, a mid-career artist who had already developed a reputation and audience. In other cases, the work is done by younger artists, sometimes while they are still students. In a conversation with Rachel Webster, curator of the Manchester Museum Herbarium, she mentioned that there are more individuals with arts backgrounds using the collection than scientists. This is in part because the museum is a unit within the University of Manchester and sits within the campus. It is also close to Manchester University which has programs in art and design. Both faculties have come to see the collection as a good source of ideas for their students. This bodes well for future art/herbarium collaborations.


Crowe, V., & Ingram, D. (2007). A discussion and illustrated lecture on the exhibition Plant Memory.

Macmillan, D. (2012). Victoria Crowe. Woodbridge, UK: Antique Collectors’ Club.

Vicky Crowe painting

Arcobaleno by Victoria Crowe