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Of Orchids and Art

Have just been alerted to the rather lovely sounding RHS Orchid Show on 20-21st March. A selection of the 22,500 species available will be on display alongside the RHS's biggest ever botanical art show.

In 1897 the RHS commissioned Nellie Roberts to paint a portrait of every award-winning orchid (her Brassocattleya is above), a tradition that has continued up to the present day with current artist, Deborah Lambkin. Usually tucked up in the Lindley Library, it should be an interesting look at the evolution of orchids in art since the Victorian era. (And at just a tenner the preview evening is a cheap mother’s day present!).

Botanical art is an interesting one, some love it, others hate it. For me it is either awe-inspiring or slightly pointless, depending how good it is. When I worked in publisher sales shortly after graduating, some buyers were rather nervous of buying prints by American botanical artist Georgia O’Keeffe. “Rather biological” they explained, embarrassedly; “A bit graphic”. Botanical pornography, to you and me.

In some ways, that is the point, although in other ways not. A flower is a reproductive body so it is bound to be just a tad biological and, coincidentally, ‘orchis’ is the Greek word for testicle – in the case of the plant, referring to the shape of the tubers of a specific genus of the orchid family. You probably knew this already. But plants and people is different. While we lack roots and petals, plants lack, well, human attributes - although they can be jolly good insect mimics. So although O'Keeffe could be said to have milked it, these concerns are largely in the fevered imaginations of art buyers from the midlands.

In his Herbal, Culpepper had this to say about orchids:
"The roots are to be used with discretion... They are hot and moist in operation, under the dominance of Venus, and provoke lust exceedingly which the dried and withered roots do restrain". (with thanks to the North of England Orchid Soc website) Quite. Restraint. That is what we need.

Anyway, botanical art. I found Georgia O’Keeffe quite intriguing - a different way of looking at plants - and my interest was reawakened by meeting the inspiring Gwladys Tonge last year, (pictured left with her lovely fern paintings). The Shirley Sherwood Gallery at Kew is worth visiting too. Botanical artists exhibit the sort of attention to detail that it is impossible for we mere mortals to wot of. Painting with a magnifying glass to capture each leaf hair and fern sorus to perfection, creating abstracts of reality. When it is good it is very, very good (and when it is bad it is horrid?). I think we can expect the very good from the Orchid Show, though.

Gwladys opens her small but plant-tastic garden for the NGS – go if you can. On the subject of which, congratulations to my friend Heather Skinner, Berkshire County Organiser who has just been made an NGS Trustee. She is a fine lady and they are lucky to have her!

Not listening to anything at the moment. Too busy writing.


  1. I rather wish I could draw well enough to do justice to plants.
    Mind you I also sometimes wish I could do many, many things..
    For example play snooker well enough not to be consistently humiliated by my 14 year old son. Make cupcakes. Fly with wings of eagles etc etc.
    At Malvern this year I get the opportunity to give it a go although we (Joe Swift, Cleve west and I) are trying it Rolf Harris style with 3" brushes. Could be interesting but it is more likely to be embarrassing.


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