International botanical art in full bloom at the Saatchi Gallery

The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS), which bills itself as ‘the world’s leading horticultural charity’, has always combined an interest in gardens with a keen eye for botanical art. Dating back to the founding of the RHS in 1804, the organization’s library collections include 30,000 works of art and approximately 250,000 photographs. With works ranging from the early 17th century to contemporary art, the RHS continues to be a prominent advocate for botanical artists working today.

Returning to London’s Saatchi Gallery for a second year, the RHS Botanical Art and Photography Show 2022 brings together a spectrum of international botanical art with artists from countries such as the US, Romania, South Korea and Japan, as well as many from the UK. The exhibition, which occupies much of the ground floor of the sprawling gallery, is divided into separate exhibits for botanical art (consisting of painting and illustration) and photography.

After initially submitting their work for submission before going through a rigorous pre-selection process, most artists have a portfolio of six exhibits on display, for which they have been awarded either a Gold, Silver, Silver or Bronze RHS Medal. The RHS has also announced four other awards for Best Botanical Art Exhibition, Best Botanical Artwork, Best Photographic Exhibition and a Special Jury Award.

For most viewers, however, the key takeaway is that the show aims to showcase some of the finest botanical artwork currently being produced, and for all the artistry and beautiful craftsmanship on display, the focus is on the plants.

Echoing a number of other exhibitors, Mitsuko Kurashina, who received both a gold medal and the Special Jury Prize, pointed out that the plants she painted were the real winners. Aside from that, Kurashina’s work is also a symbol of the dedication she and many of her peers show to their artworks.

Depicting vegetation that grew after the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami and was completed over several years, Kurashina’s series is an intimate depiction of new aquatic life. Slightly unusual compared to most of the works on display in showing elements of the landscape or the soil on which the plants grow, the watercolors combine accuracy with a delicate, enchanting aesthetic that draws and soothes the viewer.

Given that when Kurashina first visited the Tōhoku region to begin her research, she was still in a post-disaster state, with bodies still being recovered and radiation from the Fukushima nuclear disaster a constant danger, a tension remains in the background.

Like Kurashina, Japanese artist Yoko Harada is another exhibitor who shows great dedication to her craft.

For her series depicting different variations of the Arisaema genus, Harada collected some specimens from a mountainside belonging to a friend in southern Japan and traversed the difficult terrain to find the plants she wanted. Harada carefully excavated them and brought the specimens back to her Tokyo studio along with other specimens collected in the Kanto region for close observation over a period of months.

A worthy winner of the Best Botanical Artwork award, Harada’s work looks as one would expect from a botanical illustration, in its careful depiction of a specific plant’s characteristics and appearance, but in a way that makes it stand out. In part this is the scale of the work in the white gallery setting, the balance of the six pieces in the portfolio and the thoughtful composition of each piece, but also the sheer quality of the work’s execution.

The RHS considers scientific accuracy to be a key criteria for all botanical works on display and emphasizes that the artworks can serve as records for specific plants and species. Artist Georgia Danvers puts it succinctly when describing her own work:

“It brings science and art together.”

For her series featured in the RHS exhibition, Danvers worked with Professor David Twell from the University of Leicester’s Department of Genetics and Genome Biology to access images of pollen grains taken with a high-resolution scanning electron microscope.

However, while these original images were in black and white, Danvers added color to her pieces, giving the microscopic a quality that perhaps makes it appear more lifelike to our eyes. At the same time, the resulting images also have an alien quality that makes them intriguing and aesthetically interesting.

Opportunities for entry into the photography department were broader than those for the more specialized botanical arts field, with both children and adults free to participate. This openness continues in the exhibition, which includes professionals specializing in botanical photography as well as photographers whose work has not previously been seen in a physical exhibition.

The latter includes Sanjay Dinker Jani from Iowa. An architect by trade, Jani already has experience in photography but only in recent years has he started to focus on plants and flowers, pushed by the arrival of COVID-19 to seek out subjects that he draws from his immediate surroundings could take pictures.

Permitted to exhibit seven images by RHS, Jani’s series depicts the colors of the rainbow, with each individual plant strikingly lit against a black background.

Another photographer exhibiting in a physical exhibition for the first time is Joseph Shaffery, who lives near the Essex coast in England.

Shaffery’s images of forest scenes from around the world include two he took in Australia in early 2020, just before the COVID-19 lockdowns were announced. While Shaffery says he often shoots macro close-ups, the work here shows a broader view of trees in their natural environment – “a celebration of the beauty of the forest.”

As with Jani and Shaffery’s images, most of the seventeen photographic portfolios on display are in colour. A contemplative contrast is provided by the monochrome series by the US artist Libby Ellis (see main image above). Reminiscent of the imagery of 19th-century photography and early black-and-white cinema, Ellis’ work has an ethereal, luminous quality.

Displaying Cosmos flowers picked from her own and friends’ garden where she lives on Martha’s Vineyard, Ellis says, “What’s important to me is my relationship with flowers.”

The RHS presentation will be complemented by an exhibition of works by contemporary artist Anthony James, organized by the Saatchi Gallery. By adding a futuristic twist, visitors should find new ways to appreciate and visualize the planet’s plant life.

The show runs until April 29, 2022

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