‘The Kew Book of Botanical Illustration’ by Christabel King provides instruction on all aspects of botanical art. Over 128 densely-illustrated pages, King shows the reader how to paint flowers from life or from cuttings, how to make useful preparatory sketches and studies, and how to deal with the compositional challenges posed by different types of flowering plants.
Below, the book is reviewed by Jonny Bruce, a gardener and botanical artist who is currently working at a plant nursery in the Netherlands, following a stint as the Christopher Lloyd Scholar at Great Dixter House & Gardens in East Sussex. Before that, he was a horticultural apprentice at Aberglasney House & Gardens in Carmarthenshire. A detail of his painting ‘Crocosmia “Lucifer”‘ is shown above; ‘Cynara Cardunculus‘ is shown below.
‘The Kew Book of Botanical Illustration’ by Christabel King: Review by Jonny Bruce.
A true master of her craft, Christabel King has been producing botanical illustrations for over forty years, primarily as the chief botanical artist at Kew Gardens. Her work has been reproduced in countless publications including regular contributions to the prestigious Curtis’s Botanical which, as she herself explains, “has provided inspiration to generations of botanical artists”. It may come as a surprise that this practical guide is her first authored book.
The book provides guidance which will be helpful for beginners: on the layout of a working space, on suitable subjects for beginners, and on appropriate materials for botanical painting in watercolour and gouache. It also provides advice which will be of use to more advanced botanical artists, on the collection, dissection and preservation of plant specimens, and on the use of a microscope and dividers.
The quality of King’s illustration is magnificent and it is really what sets this manual apart from more run of the mill publications. The format is well organised, if a little sterile, with only the necessary minimum of text as annotation to the high-resolution diagrams. As her illustrations are intended to convey as much information as possible about her subject, so too with her writing, which is both clear and concise. At points one might wish for more, as with the rather token historical introduction which is condensed into less than an A4 side. However, it is clear that this focus is true to King’s own nature and is appropriate to a manual whose primary intention is practical.
Botanical illustration has to some extent struggled with a crisis of identity. Many claim its redundancy in face of high quality photography and digital imaging and even King admits that coloured illustrations can be seen as a luxury. In face of this there is arguably an increased pressure for botanical illustration to reinvent itself as botanical ‘Art’. Indeed the work of many fine illustrators transcends this pedantic categorisation such as Margret Mee’s mystical studies of the Amazon or the furious intensity of Rory McEwan. Thankfully King is less self-conscious and there is a calm confidence in her work which is obviously content with being an art “in the service of science”.
This is a book intended to instruct and it does so with the clarity of King’s own illustration. Of particular enjoyment is the section dedicated to Curtis’s Botanical for it gives the author an opportunity to escape from purely didactic diagrams and present some inspiring painting, so often lacking from those instruction manuals to which we have unfortunately become accustomed.
The image at the top of this article is a detail of ‘Crocosmia “Lucifer”‘ in watercolour by Jonny Bruce.
‘The Kew Book of Botanical Illustration’ by Christabel King is available at Jackson’s.