Wednesday, 28 May 2014

From Betty’s Bay to Transylvania via London

A botanical art trip of a lifetime 
By Vicki Thomas


The day after arriving in London, I found myself in the upper storey of Hampton Court Palace, about to give a workshop to a group of botanical artists working on a Florilegium … creating a visual record of some of the plants in the Palace. Looking out of the window I could see large topiarised trees and formal gardens that were established for Henry VIII. Two days earlier I had been looking out at the mountains and the fynbos of my own garden in Betty’s Bay. It was pretty surreal. The subject of the workshop was “Focus” and after we had discussed the ways artists have created areas of interest in their paintings, I went to each artist to discuss what they were currently working on. The English artists have a very fine sense of detail and generally their work is technically excellent. In comparison, our South African botanical artists have a rather bold approach to our work, which may not be quite as fine, but sometimes has more vitality. We can both learn from one another.

I certainly learned a lot in the next stage of my journey, the main reason for the trip ...


A group of artists was selected to paint flowers growing in the meadows of Transylvania, Romania, where farming methods have not changed in centuries, resulting in a healthy and diverse population of indigenous flora. We were looked after completely for two weeks, all we had to do was paint.

I am allowed to say that I was working on paintings that may be selected for inclusion in the Transylvania Florilegium, presently being created under the umbrella of the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts, to record in a permanent way the flora of Transylvania.

This is a sort of continuation of the Highgrove Florilegium, which recorded the plants growing in HRH Prince Charles’s garden at Highgrove, where two of my works were published in Volume I some years ago, the proceeds of which went to the charity The Prince’s Trust.

The aim was for each artist to get painting on three plants, recording as much information as possible, so the works could be finished at home.

We went first to Viscri, where we stayed in a lovely guesthouse in a typical Saxon village, with red tiled houses; each property is a self-sufficient smallholding, opening on to the main road. My room overlooked the road that had pastoral daily traffic, mostly village carts and livestock (the animals had lovely bells around their necks) going to the meadows each morning and returning at dusk. Cars are outnumbered by horses and carts, everything is simple and hand made. It was like going back a century or two.

An eminent botanist (John Akeroyd) was with us when we went out looking at what was blooming and what was required to be recorded. Botanising in the meadows on the hills was wonderful, full sunshine and everything very green; it made some of us burst into Julie Andrews’ song! I soon settled down with my plant (a Cranbe, which has millions of small white flowers) and got cracking, first taking a flower apart, reading up on the diagnostics, making some sketches then working out composition, then straight on to the paper. The other artists were Andrew Brown, Julia Trickey, Laura Silburn and our leader Helen Allen from the UK, Angelique de Folin a French artist living in the UK, Jenny Phillips an Australian, and a Dutch artist and teacher, Anita Walsmit Sachs. All the artists took much longer than I did with their preparations, colour matching, careful drawing, and so on. When I was half-way through my first painting, I was prompted to start on a second plant, an orchid. Heading out into the country again, we found the beautiful Orchis militaris on the slopes beneath a ruined castle surrounded by tall forests. Another amazing experience, I felt as if I was in a magical fairyland.

Looking for the military orchid

We all worked long hours each day on our paintings, meeting for meals and chatting about all sorts of painting issues, pigments and equipment and the state of the world. However, our days at Viscri were soon up and we set off to Zalanpatak, where we would stay for our final week in HRH Prince Charles’s property to begin our third plant. Yes, there was garlic above the door to ward off who knows what! This place was really beautiful, set higher on the slopes of the mountains close to the Carpathians. One of our party saw a bear on the edge of the forest! My painting spot was high up above our dining area, where there was a small platform and a window with good light and a marvellous view, but there were no bear sightings for me. My third and final painting is of a Cowslip, a humble meadow plant according to the English, but quite exotic to me. I squashed it in a ziplock bag in my suitcase and brought it back to South Africa where it is growing quite well in my studio, helping me to get the veining and colour right.

The whole trip to Transylvania was a learning curve, I found the level of perfection in some of the artists’ work so inspiring, but I was also impressed by the way everyone got on and the kindness shown to one another, as many of us had off days somewhere along the line. The way the local Romanian people care for their land, the simplicity of eating what they produce, and the harmony with their environment was an inspiration. An organisation called ADEPT has been set up to ensure that farming and industrial developments in the future try to maintain this delicate balance.


On my return to London, I met up with Dr Shirley Sherwood at her gallery at Kew Botanical Gardens. There she talked to a group of artists from Denver, an Italian artist, Coral Guest (UK), Jenny Phillips (Australia) and me about the latest exhibition “Botanical Art in the 21st Century”. She showed how many of the artists were born after 1950 and a growing number are exploring different techniques. Although there is still a very important place for traditional botanical illustration, there are artists now painting large plants life-sized, and painting plants larger than life. Compositions are more adventurous too. It was significant that there were children in the gallery, as botanical art is now available as a school subject in the UK. Dr Sherwood has inspired artists around the world; she has several new works purchased from Thailand, Italy and other countries. She has recently judged exhibitions of botanical art in New York and in Ireland where there is a new botanical artists organisation. It was humbling to see my own work and that of Lynda de Wet up there with some of the best artists in the genre.

What a trip! I feel as if I have been immersed in botanical art. How grateful I am to live in this wonderful land of ours, our flora is so extremely rich and diverse. There is no place like home.

Betty's Bay May 2014

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