Last week I had a quick trip to Ballarat to view the current exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ballarat, “Capturing flora: 300 years of Australian botanical art”.
Taking its inspiration from Helen Hewson’s 1999 book “Australia: three hundred years of botanical illustration” the exhibition explores the illustration of Australian plants from the earliest examples in the published journals of William Dampier’s 1699 voyage to the work of contemporary botanical artists.
As botanical art has traditionally been created for publication in scientific books or popular gardening journals, by necessity much of the exhibition consists of books or illustrations from books. It shows that the Art Gallery of Ballarat has made a concerted attempt to collect in this area in recent years.
The exhibition contains sections on early exploration, including many French works, eighteenth and nineteenth century botanical magazines such as “Curtis’s Botanical Magazine” and lady amateur artists. Early Australian books on display that are also held in the State Library of Queensland collections include “Banks Florilegium” Ferdinand Bauer’s “Illustrationes florae Novae Hollandiae” John White’s “Journal of a voyage to New South Wales”, James Edward Smith’s “A specimen of the botany of New Holland” ,Robert Sweet’s “Flora Australiasica” and Louisa Anne Meredith’s “Bush friends in Tasmania”.
Images of waratahs, Sturt’s desert peas, Gymea lilies and Christmas bells are used extensively to draw comparisons between styles and artistic techniques including painting, drawing, engraving and lithography.
Contemporary artists represented include Margaret Stones, Jenny Phillips, Anita Barley, Mali Moir, Dianne Emery, Lauren Black and John Pastoriza-Piñol.
It was a delight to see several superb watercolours by Jean Dennis of “Brachychitons” which include Bottle and Flame trees. Jean has been documenting this entire genus for many years and on one trip to north Queensland to continue the project dropped in to SLQ to show me her work.
Elizabeth Cooper’s amazing graphite drawings of different species of firewheel tree are a far cry from the bright images of firewheels popularised by lino-cut artists but exquisitely capture all the nuances of texture and form without the need for colour.
Of particular interest were a series of working drawings by Celia Rosser for one of the plates in her huge 3 volume set “The banksias” for which she painted every species of the genus life size. This work is always a favourite with visitors to the Library to view our collection of botanical books.
A large sumptuously illustrated catalogue to the exhibition has been published with essays by Jennifer Jones-O’Neill, Richard Aitken, Thomas Darragh, Julie Collett and curator Gordon Morrison. It will be available soon in the Australian Library of Art collection.