At Plant Curator we use the term ‘plant art’ to refer to any representation of creativity in the arts that utilise plants. It doesn’t matter to us if this is a poem or a painting, or if it’s a naturalistic representation or something altogether more abstract, we just want to celebrate plants because they do not always get the recognition they deserve.
Botanical Art is one form of plant art that seems more defined, circumscribed by the institutions that continue to champion it. Yet we have seen a proliferation of naturalistic botanical prints on the catwalk, in advertising and interior design in recent years, creating mass appeal. Should these be regarded as Botanical Art? From an outsider’s perspective, it seems a rather hidden world, as how many of us can name a botanical artist, living or dead? If pressed for an answer some might say Georgia O’Keeffe or Liberty’s, and would they be wrong?
The beautifully named Coral Guest is an artist who paints plants and who has had a successful career in this field; TV work, a book, two RHS Gold medals, numerous exhibitions and more. We had the opportunity to ask her about her work and her world, with questions on topics such as; the definition of botanical art, its purpose today, artists of note, how to access artworks, and becoming a practitioner. Her wealth of knowledge, coupled with her insight and enthusiasm for plants and the field, broadens our conception of what this art form is and can be.
All artwork by Coral Guest
PC: You have said it is up to the artist to define whether they are a botanical artist. So are you?
CG: Since the 1990’s, Botanical Art has been used as an umbrella term, which embraces many forms of fine and applied arts that involve the plant kingdom. Its significance has evolved through the will of artists, scientists, collectors, art dealers, and institutions alike, with the aim of bringing the appreciation of plant life out of the shadows and into the spotlight.
I see it as extremely useful for all artists who work in the Botanical Art field, to describe and entitle themselves according to their specific characteristics and their modus operandi. If they do not do this, the future art critic and historian will do this for them. I define myself as a Flower Painter because this is what I do. For me, the specific title Botanical Artist is more accurately applied as a generalisation.
The art of Flower Painting has a long history, based on painting and drawing from observation. Coming from a fine art background, my intent is to bring forth new ideas and concepts, which for me means expressing the power and beauty of flowering plants and our relationship to them. The plant world does not serve me as an artist. I serve the plant world.
PC: One type of botanical art is a single species showing foliage, flower, roots and fruit, set against a white background, most likely rendered from a herbarium specimen. Marianne North, often referred to as a botanical artist, painted living plants in situ. Other artists have done amazing naturalistic renderings of plants, even when not the main subject, like Albert Dürer or Millais in his Ophelia. So for the uninitiated, what would be the institutional definition of Botanical Art?
CG: The institutional definition of Botanical is as I have described it, and this question points out that all kinds of artistic styles already co-exist as the norm. This fact invites us to redefine and investigate all kinds of Botanical Art on an ongoing basis. If artists become more inclined to produce explanations of their work we can inform the art viewer further and leave a reference of individual artistic perspectives, which historians can build on. Currently, two-dimensional Botanical Art is involved in extensive hybridisation of creative intent and purpose, which is why I particularly like the idea of using appropriate descriptive names and titles.
PC: Are there sub-genres based on technique within Botanical Art?
CG: As an umbrella term Botanical Art, embraces many sub-genres. The two dimensional visual arts are the ones I am familiar with and qualified to talk about. This includes a whole spectrum of techniques that have multifarious functions, such as Fine Art Drawings (using pen and pencil), Botanical Illustration (using traditional methods of drawing and watercolour), Flower Painting and Floral Art that utilises all mediums, Photography and Digital Plant Illustration, Fine Art Printmaking, and so forth.
PC: What do you think Botanical Art does for a plant that other art renderings don’t or can’t do?
CG: As an example, in Botanical Illustration the artist brings our attention to specific aspects of a plant form through a sophisticated selection and arrangement of pictorial elements. As an art form it has therefore never been replaced by photography. A Flower Painting is subtly different because it brings both physical and philosophical insights into a plant and its cultural heritage, offering a different kind of insight than that of the more scientific based illustration work. The paintings by both Marianne North, and Margaret Mee, are uniquely devoted not only to individual plant species, but also their indigenous environment, which brings in another layer of information. Botanical Art in its various forms has brought the plant world out of its supporting role in the fine arts, and into the centre stage. It’s regular to now name the botanical features of a painter’s work as their ‘Botanical Art’, such as the Botanical Art of Millais, which implies that although he was not specifically a Botanical Artist, he included plant life as an aspect of his creative repertoire.
PC: What are the main institutions promoting, championing or supporting botanical art in the UK today?
Royal Botanic Gardens Kew
Royal Horticultural Society
Natural History Museum
Victoria and Albert Museum
National Museum of Wales
Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art
Society of Botanical Artists
Society of Floral Painters
PC: We understand that there are entrance requirements to botanical art awards. Can you summarise for us what these generally are?
CG: The Botanical Art Societies in the UK, Europe, and the US, all have their own specific requirements. The Royal Horticultural Society Botanical Art shows in London are the most highly revered in the UK. Works are assessed by the judges as Botanical Illustration, for which a series of RHS Medals are awarded to the best exhibits. Each artist shows a minimum of six pieces, preferably within a theme. Emphasis is on botanical accuracy and aesthetic appeal. The rules and regulations are updated from time to time and can be found on the Society’s website:
PC: Do you think it’s time for the botanical art world to branch out and be more inclusive? Couldn’t the RHS for example have a few more categories, while maintaining the existing ones, wouldn’t that be good for plants? For example, Karl Blossfeldt today would be excluded, which just seems madness, as his work has done much to highlight plant morphology?
CG: The RHS has always been a very strong advocate of plant photography and includes it each year, usually in the autumn Flower Show in London. The difficulty in creating further artistic categories would perhaps be in the issue of judging for medals, as the judging capacity would need further expansion too. The RHS is fundamentally a horticultural society, and given this perspective, the work that it has done through collecting and showing traditional Botanical Art and Plant Photography (including digital plant illustration) has been truly spectacular.
I very much hoped that from its inception, the Society of Botanical Artists in the UK would be more inclusive of works such as conceptual art, and various aspects of design and photography. It exists currently to support more traditional forms of Botanical Art, and welcomes small sculptures and ceramics in its shows.
Over the past ten years a critical mass of pressure from a variety of experimental and popular arts that involve plant life has been steadily building. I suspect that this will give rise to a new society that is not exclusively dominated by traditional forms of painting and illustration, but will include a far broader membership – such as the industrial applied arts, experimental fine art, fashion, and so forth. I don’t have any personal plans to initiate this, but I view the idea as entirely appropriate.
PC: Botanical art seems to be an art form that attracts more women, with perhaps a stereotype of them being from a certain class and background. Other art forms such as plant photography appear more gender neutral. Do you think this is the case and if so why?
CG: The gender issue is changing rapidly. I suggest looking deeper than appearances, because extraordinary things often happen in ordinary places. Historically, women have sometimes had a very rough ride and been subjected to ridicule as lady flower artists and the like. In the 1990’s the Flower Painter, male or female, was still considered by the contemporary fine art sphere to be something shallow and only decorative in relation to other forms of painting and sculpture.
It was the stereotypical middle class, middle aged, women who joined forces and stood up to say that prejudices against Botanical Art are outdated. They are the ones who became collectors, and created the art societies and art groups. They travelled, taught, and consequently paved the way for younger artists of both genders to run with experimentation and blossom into something new. This pressure came from outside the norms and conventions of the established art world, in the form of ordinary women with an extraordinary vision. The young now have the choice to renovate again, and form new collectives, so what’s stopping them?
PC: Context seems to denote how ‘contemporary’ botanical art feels. Botanical Art can sometimes seem like a staid, old fashioned world, yet when the work of botanical artists are transferred to other fields (e.g. fashion, interiors) they seem so on trend. Do you think opening up Botanical Art to a more diverse crowd would change this view?
CG: I agree, because traditional images of plants are detailed and intense, and when enlarged or moved away from an association with the same kind of artworks, they can take on a very complementary role to whatever they are with. This can bring alive not only the artwork itself but also the new context they are placed within. Flowers in particular touch us with a crystal clear energy that is unique to them, and it radiates out to everything around. If a young designer can take something that on first glance appears old fashioned, and see the value of the spirit within it, there is no limit to what can evolve artistically.
PC: Is this a good time for Botanical Art? Do you see the proliferation of botanical prints everywhere too?
CG: Botanical Art is in the process of what is often referred to as a renaissance, it is evolving to become many things on many levels, hybridising and reinventing itself. This is an exciting time, when bridges are being built between applied and fine arts, and art and science, and so much more.
PC: Do you notice trends in botanical art over the years and if so what are they? Are younger artists creating different compositions to older generations?
CG: The single most innovative trend over the last 10 years is the presence of life size work painted in a larger format, which a few new painters are working with. Botanical Art is no longer associated exclusively with little pictures, and artists are thinking big. The young have the task of moving past the extraordinary leap forward in compositional concepts made by Rory McEwen in the latter part of the 20th century.
PC: Can you tell us about your relationship with plants – were you particularly drawn to certain groups of plants and they became your work, or did work introduce you to different plants? Have you had any periods where you’ve lost feeling for them? Do you prefer to go on holiday where you can forget about them for a while? Are there times when you are desperate to paint anything but a plant?
CG: On my first visit to Kew, aged six, we walked around the Order Beds to see the irises and peonies. There was a gardener digging up some plants, which were laid out on a pathway. I was mesmerised to see that large bright flowers on long stems ended in a strange ugly root. I have been looking at the both the inflorescence and root systems from bulbs, corms and tubers ever since. As a consequence, it became my aim to move Botanical Art into the 21st century by painting life size images of plants, with their root systems, on very large sheets of paper. This began in 2001, when the larger sheets became available in a weight of paper that required no stretching.
There is a stage in my daily work process, when I reach a saturation point. I then feel compelled to stare into the vast distance, and go walking. I aim to step into and out of the work process in a state of balance that is contained and held. This is possible because I work with silence within and without. Artists in general have the post-modern reputation of being neurotic, which I find hopelessly outdated.
PC: Who do you think is the most important botanical artist/s of all time and why?
CG: All Botanical Arts are treasures of their time, and I gravitate towards the ones whom I see as ahead of their time, including: Dürer for his naturalism, Redouté for his awareness of beauty, the Bauer Brothers for their acute analysis, Monet for his colour and intense love, Van Gogh for understanding friendship through the sunflowers, William Morris for recognising the power of natural form, Georgia O’Keeffe for her unbounded colour and explorative grandeur, and Rory McEwen for his intensity and compositional innovation.
PC: Who do you think is the most important botanical artist/s practising today and why?
CG: There are so many for so many different reasons, but I favour the following artists:-
Rachael Peddler-Smith: for paintings of Kew’s herbarium specimens in a large format.
Carolyn Jenkins: for illustrations with depth of colour, and delicate botanical analysis
Kate Nessler: for paintings on vellum that break traditional boundaries.
Sarah Graham: for tonal drawings that are both amplified and graceful.
Lucy T. Smith: for exceptional illustration work created through collaboration with scientists.
Sarah Simblet: for drawings in book form and debating the link between science and art.
David Nash: for sculpture and drawing work with tree life.
Niki Simpson: for innovation in the development of digital plant illustration.
Andrew Zukerman: for the Flower series of photographs that are way beyond the norm.
Helen Schmitz: for the photographic documentation revealing the curiosities of plant life.
Clinton Friedman: for the joyous enchantment of plant life in interior design.
PC: At what point did you know you were going to be a botanical artist?
CG: I am told that as a baby I enjoyed crawling through the herbaceous borders in my grandparent’s garden. I suspect it was there that I began staring into the faces of flowers. As a student I trained in classical methods of painting and drawing, then specialised in abstraction and colour theory whilst studying Fine Art. This granted me a huge quota of knowledge with which to work. I started to bring all of these aspects together when I was practicing calligraphy in Japan, and there began sketching in the field. I was in my mid 20’s and for the first time I was alone and away from the influences of contemporary art, and I began to work seriously with the flowers.
PC: Who were your creative inspirations when you were starting out?
Jan Van Eyck, Dürer, Redouté, Gilbert White, Piet Mondrian, Emile Nolde, Rory McEwen, Pandora Sellars, Joseph Beuys, and Sol le Wit.
PC: How would a young person set about becoming a botanical artist today? Do botanical artists need specialised training and if so who is providing it?
CG: Begin at school by including Biology (‘A’ level Botany has now been dropped) and Art and Design at ‘A’ level. A short course in Botany is very valuable and is available at some of the major botanic gardens and universities.
A good Art Foundation Course at an art college will facilitate a decision on what aspect of art to specialise in at Degree level – be this Fine Art, Illustration/Design, Fashion, etc.
The Royal School of Drawing, Chelsea College of Art and Design, Central Saint Martins, and the Ruskin School are some of the many established schools to study art at Foundation, BA and MA levels.
For listings of other Botanical Art courses of all kinds, search the Society of Botanical Artists website:
Also, the ArtPlantae Today website for global listings:
PC: What are the ways in which a botanical artist can make money today?
CG: Be it fine or applied art, the list is as endless as the types of artists involved. It’s worth mentioning that very few Botanical Artists focus their entire time on drawing and painting, most also like to also teach techniques and create books and prints as part of their career. The Botanical Art field is a mixture of professional, semi-professional, and serious amateur artists who work on all levels.
PC: Are there botanical artists selling their work for large sums of money (i.e. are botanical art works in demand as art)?
CG: With reference to painting and drawings, yes, there are Botanical Artists selling work that is viewed as long term investment. Such artists are in demand because the quality of their work is exceptional. There is no research data, and this is currently a small specialised sector of the bigger art market, and relates to the fact that historical works by Botanical Artists are rising in price.
PC: If someone wanted to commission a botanical illustration of their favourite plant, how would they go about this? Would they look for an artist that specialised in that group or would most botanical artists turn their hand to any species? Could they commission you to paint any species, and if so, would they need to supply you with the plant beforehand and how much would you charge?
CG: Each individual commission is unique. Therefore it is discussed and negotiated exclusively and based upon the creative interests of both parties and what the budget will allow. I suggest looking initially at the work of those who specialise in the subject that you would like painted, but this is not a hard and fast rule. For me, Study Works begin at a few hundred pounds and small Precision Works begin at a couple of thousand and rise upwards.
A collector may have a clear view of what they want and some are open entirely to recommendation when commissioning a piece. Either way, co-operation is essential, and nothing can manifest until everyone is as clear on what is to be painted and when. Sourcing specimens is something that is another variable. I mostly grow my own, or procure from nurseries. Some collectors like to have a much valued plant from their own garden, or one in a native situation, used as the subject matter.
Faith is always present before any commission work begins, and once an agreement is made the collector always has to stand back and trust. I aim for a commission to be an immensely interesting, delightful, and very unique process.
PC: If someone wanted to invest in botanical artworks or become a collector, where would one start to learn about botanical art, its value and what is collectable?
CG: Begin with the Shirley Sherwood Collection of Botanical Art, by visiting the gallery at Kew. Read Dr Sherwood’s books about her collection, as these contain information on Botanical Art and Artists from around the globe. View the website of the Hunt Botanical Institute, artist’s personal websites, and the galleries they exhibit with.
Visit the RHS Botanical Art exhibitions and those of the Botanical Art Societies, and discuss possibilities with the artists exhibiting. Buy what you love, and focus upon building a collection that has coherence by choosing favoured artists, and/or artistic themes that are of personal interest. Collect with passion, so that the whole experience is valuable on levels beyond the financial. This is an emerging market, and a risk is involved, if the primary concern is investment. When purchasing the work of a long established artist, search the auction houses online to see if their work has been in any resale auctions, and look at these prices. Some of my work that was purchase in the 1980’s has in the past few years been reselling at auction, and the results for collectors are good.
PC: Is there one piece of botanical art you would love to own?
CG: For me this varies from week to week, but I have always had a dream of being in Paris at 5am on a June morning, and with several like-minded artists, visit the Musée de l’Orangerie before it opens to walk amongst Monet’s magical Les Nymphéas paintings.
PC: How big (or small) and connected is the botanical art scene in the UK? Do most practising botanical artists know other botanical artists? And do you feel that it is at all competitive in truth?
CG: A great number of artists are now entering this field, therefore competitiveness is intense. I am concerned when I see plagiarism occur, and I also observe that this is often done unconsciously. I endorse ambition and support the idea of art competitions, but I am not at ease with competitiveness for its own sake. I take an over view of the Botanical Art scene as fundamentally a supportive network that is primarily focused around the collegiate groups and societies that endorse those involved. In this way, a great deal of fruitful exchange takes place that is particularly good for new artists.
PC: What did winning RHS Gold medals do for you?
CG: I received the awards in my 20’s, and was inspired to continue at a time when I was very poor and teaching in the evenings to fund each day in the studio. An RHS Gold Medal is an artistic rite of passage, and it exists as a standard that is trusted globally. In an environment where we have many Botanical Art schools offering a variety of qualifications, it shines out. It is an award for an exhibition of artwork, and not actually a competition.
PC: What has brought the most attention to your work? Exhibitions, website, book, awards?
CG: In 1993, a very eloquent and inspiring new Art Collector named Dr Shirley Sherwood purchased a painting, the first of many. Some of these, which are 5 feet in height, have been shown worldwide. Considering the logistic issues of transporting large works on paper, only a major Art Collector could facilitate such a project, and this has brought tremendous publicity and a greater audience to my work.
The book Painting Flowers in Watercolour – A Naturalistic Approach, relates to the teaching I gave at Kew. It began with the idea of making a difference to Botanical Art by offering observational painting and drawing methods and combining them with the new techniques I had developed. The idea was to enable artistic originality to develop as I have always wanted Botanical Artists to become free spirits, not develop as clones of their teachers. The popularity of the methods in the book grew way beyond my expectations, and are now practiced and taught globally by Botanical Painters and Illustrators.
PC: Some of your work involves painting specific parts of plants, what does it feel like to know that you are one of the few people in the world, if not the only one, to have looked at a particular specimen so closely? Do you feel privy to a secret world?
CG: In the work process I become deeply focused upon the order that the plant possesses. Through this concentration I gain a kind of access into the ephemeral nature of the plant, and many insights flow through my inner silence. This is particularly so when I stare into the face of a flower and experience something that is way outside the normal level of human awareness. Through observing I have encountered the powerful link between beauty and truth, that I see as a gifting, and which I attempt to honour in the artwork. I understand flowers as a unique kind of love and even if we don’t notice them in our lives they are there anyway, gracing us with their presence.
PC: What are you working on now?
CG: My attention is currently drawn to the tubers and roots of the Paeonia officinalis ‘Rubra Plena’. I focus both physically and energetically on the layers of potential that they hold, whilst aiming to reflect this in a monochrome drawing. The seemingly chaotic arrangement of underground storage and roots maintain an influential balancing act that to me is an allegory of our own unconscious mind and the quest for equilibrium.
-The End –