South African botany has been served by a succession of highly skilled artists and illustrators, too many for more than a cursory mention of just a few of them here. The Austrian Frans Bauer (17581840), one of the famous botanical artist brothers and perhaps the greatest illustrator of South African plants, never visited the country. As botanical artist to King George III, he had access to freshly grown material from the glasshouses of Kew, cultivated from seeds and bulbs sent back to London by Francis Masson. Described by the great botanical art historian William Stearn as having come ‘nearer to perfection in this field of art and scholarship than anyone before or since’, Bauer illustrated hundreds of South African plants ‘to their greater perfection’.
John Frederick William Herschel (1792-1871) and Margaret Brodie Herschel (1810-1884) were an extraordinarily talented couple. During their four-year sojourn at the Cape, the famous astronomer drew fine line drawings of some 300 species, each painted with great sensitivity in watercolours by his wife. These paintings, after being inaccessible for a century and a half, have been made available to all through the sumptuously published Flora Herscheliana authored by John Rourke, for many years Curator of the Compton Herbarium at Kirstenbosch, and Brian Warner, Professor of astronomy at the University of Cape Town.
Botanical art flourished in South Africa throughout the 20th century, with work of outstanding quality contributed by Auriol Batten (1918-), Ellaphie Ward-Hilhorst (1920-1994), Thalia Lincoln (1924-), Fay Anderson (1931-), Vicky Thomas (1951-), Gill Condy (1952-) and many more. The fine works of these artists enrich the many monographs on Cape plants produced by botanists at Kirstenbosch, notable among these being John Rourke’s Mimetes illustrated by Thalia Lincoln, John Manning’s Gladiolus illustrated by Fay Anderson and Auriol Batten, and Ernst van Jaarsveld’s Plectranthus illustrated by Vicky Thomas. Botanical artists, including Mary Maytham Kidd and Auriol Batten, spearheaded the surge of field guides in the 1950s and 1960s, before photography replaced them towards the end of the century.
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden Map English Photo Gallery
It was not long before works from many of South Africa’s rapidly expanding corps of artists found their way into the Shirley Sherwood collection, to be exhibited in leading galleries around the world and in the Shirley Sherwood Gallery in the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
Art works from the Kirstenbosch Biennales: top to bottom Strelitzia nicolai (Ann Schweizer); Protea neriifolia ‘Kirstenbosch ’(Peta Stockton); top to bottom Gardenia globosa (Barbara Pike); Strelitzia juncea (Miriam Stern); Kigelia africana (Ann Schweizer); Diaphanathe xanthopollinia (Sibonelo Chilisa); Protea neriifolia (Peta Stockton); Agapanthus walshii (Vicky Thomas)
Botanical artists have, for most of the past century, been notoriously poorly paid. What has brought significant change to the fortunes of botanical artists, however, was a change in the market. Much of the credit for this must be given to Dr Shirley Sherwood, a botanist herself, with a keen eye for talent. Dr Sherwood first visited Kirstenbosch in 1990, and was so impressed by the beauty of its flowers, that she immediately sought out artists who might have works for her to purchase for her private collection.
Kirstenbosch was host to a massive exhibition of 130 of the Shirley Sherwood Collection’s choicest works in 1996. Inspired by this exhibition, Merle Huntley initiated and curated the first four of the now ongoing Kirstenbosch Biennales, which present the best of South African botanical art to an expanding audience. Prices for ‘flower paintings’ sold at the Biennale now reach previously unheard-of prices. Paintings are judged not only on their technical and scientific merit, but also on their ‘wall appeal’ – a criterion that has liberated botanical illustration from dusty archives to the galleries of major institutions and private collections. In the case of South African botany, the professional artist has never had it so good.