Talk Report – Nov & Dec 2018

Botanical art around the world: Looking for the perfect curve

Vicki Thomas, 17 November 2018

Living as we do in the heartland of the nation’s floral kingdom, the prospect of hearing a talk by renowned and local botanical artist, Vicki Thomas, attracted a large audience on Saturday 17 November 2018 to the Nivenia Hall, Harold Porter Gardens.

Fusing her artistic expertise with her love for teaching, Vicki traced for us the early origins and functions of botanical illustration and how it metamorphosed into the recognised and sought-after art form of today.

Botanical art has its origins in the age of exploration. Explorers travelling through uncharted lands collected and preserved plant materials for scientific research into their possible medicinal value.   Lacking photographic methods for keeping records, they relied on illustrators to observe specimens and capture the finest details of the plants.

Illustrators had to minutely depict all relevant aspects of the plant that would enable accurate identification – the roots, leaves, stem, flowers and seed. Dissections of flowers and seeds and details of a plant’s location and growth habit were often included as well. The illustrators were constrained by set limitations of page size and specific style because the drawings were to be compiled into herbals or botanical folios. The aim was purely to convey as much information as possible to the scientific researchers who were the recipients of the works, and this left no room or need for artistic expression or visual appeal.

Vicky showed examples from early monographs to illustrate how densely information could be crammed onto a single page. Drawings were often done in collaboration with other artists whose contributions might be simply glued in place on the page. Botanical illustrators were considered mere copiers of nature, not contributing anything in the way of creativity, beauty or viewer enjoyment.

This form of illustration was about as far from art as it could be. However, in the past 40 years there has been a huge shift in the way botanical art is regarded. The catalyst responsible for the change was patronage.

Foremost of these patrons was Shirley Sherwood, who began collecting botanical artworks and financing a gallery at Kew Gardens to exhibit them. Interest grew, botanical art was seen to have aesthetic appeal and financial value, and with that recognition came more teachers of the genre, more guidelines on plant anatomy and more botanical publications. This development coincided with a worldwide growing interest in the natural world and awareness of the need to preserve species, especially those under threat from plant invaders. Prince Charles protected wildflowers by allowing them to flourish in the meadows around Highgrove House. He commissioned a florilegium of all the plants growing there, and another on the flowers and plants on his property in Transylvania. Vicki herself contributed work to both these beautiful floral folios, and she is now compiling a similar florilegium of the Western Cape.

Botanical artists today number in their thousands, and in South Africa alone there are more than 200. Vicki took part in the Botanical Art Worldwide Exhibition which was recently held in Johannesburg at the Everard Read Gallery. It linked 27 countries around the world by video, showing artists at work, painting the indigenous plants of their countries.

Botanical illustrators have not disappeared – there is always a need for meticulous depiction of the minutest details of plants, in order to keep records or to illustrate a botanical text such as an article or monograph. The illustrators conform to specific guidelines as to the content and the way the drawings are produced, e.g. size of page and use of colour or background. The drawings are usually monochrome in order to keep printing costs down.

While botanical artists also painstakingly study the plant they want to draw, they have the freedom to express their own individual response to it and to make the composition aesthetically appealing. As Vicki explains, her total absorption in a plant for months on end develops a deep connection with it, and it is this connection that she tries to communicate to the viewer. Hence the “seeking for the perfect curve’’ of the subtitle of Vicki’s talk: requiring precise arrangement and alignment of the subject on the page and exquisite skill in rendering of the details so that the very essence of the plant is revealed. This is when “nature is visible and art is concealed” (Goethe).

Rea Borcherds

Talk Report – Dec 2018

Living Shores

George and Margot Branch, 8 December 2018

George and Margot Branch are world famous marine scientists with hundreds of publications and presentations to their names. George lectured at UCT for many years. He has supervised and mentored generations of marine biologists in South Africa.

Through their joint presentation we were made aware of their passionate love for our oceans. We were encouraged to remain interested in what is happening along our shores and beyond. The first edition of their book The Living Shores became the textbook for George’s students. It was first published in the eighties and reprinted nine times. The revised edition has two volumes. Volume 1 deals mainly with coastal habitats, rocky shores, sandy beaches, kelp beds, estuaries, open sea and marine management. Volume 2 will deal with numerous animal and plant groups that inhabit the different ecosystems. This book has appeal to scientists and academics, but its lively and fascinating text and multiple colour images will also appeal to the lay enthusiast.

Since their first book, activities along our coast have changed. Reasons are climate change, the ecosystem approach to fisheries, operational management procedures and marine protected areas. The Branches have explored areas from Beira round to Luanda. They have worked with young, active and challenging students from all walks of life. These two scientists will shape the future in their chosen fields of endeavour.

South Africa is described as a world within a country insofar as our unique plant diversity and oceanographic features are concerned. Two mighty oceans, the Indian and the Atlantic, meet at the tip. The Agulhas current brings warm water down the east coast. To the west, the cold Benguela current drifts northwards. The Cape Peninsula is a unique narrow strip of land that separates seas that are startlingly different in their temperatures and in the life they support. A 24°C warm swim in False Bay contrasts with 12°C in Kommetjie just 12 kms across the Peninsula.

The Living Shores is great to own and peruse. It will answer questions like: Where did water come from? Why is the sea salty? and Which animal can dive the deepest?

Another of George and Margot’s books, Exploring the Seashore, will assist families and curious people of all ages to understand our coastlines more fully.

It is indeed a privilege for us to have two such knowledgeable, interesting and warm-hearted people to come and share their passion with us.

 Andrea Benn