I knew about this book a long time before it was published, having seen some of the beautiful art produced for the Florilegium Society at the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney. I imagined some sort of coffee-table picture book – nice but something you’d leaf through fairly quickly, just looking at the lovely pictures. I wasn’t expecting something you would have so much enjoyment reading.★★★★½
Paradoxically, I like this book because there’s plenty worth reading but also because you don’t have to read it at all to get something valuable from it. I look at plants every day for how I can use them – either to eat or to exploit decoratively in my garden – or I think about how I can grow them, and the associated everyday gardening tasks of planting, watering and pruning. I realised as I looked at the plants in the Florilegium paintings that it was a long time since I had examined so closely a plant just for its own sake, thinking about its shapes and textures, colours and patterns and individual adaptations. Because these are mostly not paintings of unusual, rare or endangered plants. They’re everyday plants, like sheoak and eucalypt, lilly pilly and camellia, and I was glad to see them with fresh eyes. Even the ordinary can be extraordinary if you take the time to really look. It’s a lazy way to become an observer but I will think of it as outsourcing to an expert.
Florilegium is an interesting word in itself, meaning a collection of paintings of a particular garden or place – in this case the three gardens that comprise the Royal Botanic Gardens – Sydney and its Domain, the Blue Mountains Botanic Garden at Mount Tomah, and the Australian Botanic Garden at Mount Annan. Both Australian plants and exotics are featured in the Florilegium, reflecting the range of the Gardens’ overall Living Collection.
Botanical art is a both a useful and decorative area of botanical study. But why do we need it in these modern days of high quality digital photography? The answer is time and timing, as a photograph can only capture one moment in time. That moment might be the flower at full throttle, or a spectacular dangle of seedpods but you obviously can’t have the two at the same time. Botanical art needs to show the full range of the plant’s morphology for identification purposes, including flowers, leaves, some suggestion of habit, fruit and seeds and often also the ovary. Mostly this is painted from real life, with separate parts of the plant’s morphology added at the appropriate time, but some very elusive characteristics can be painted from herbarium specimens.
The paintings are delightful, exquisite water colours displayed in the book at half their original size (the originals usually representative of their actual size in real life). I’m a bit of a do-things-on-the-run person so I’m always in awe of these botanical artists who can sit so patiently for so long, capturing not just every tiny detail of a plant but something else about it too. If you were a spiritual sort of person and the painting were of a person, you’d say it was the ‘soul’ but as I’m not, and these are plants, I will settle for ‘essence’.
The Florilegium includes a diversity of styles from both Australian and international artists; many are on the customary white background, while others are displayed on a detailed backdrop, allowing the artist to add shadows and give a greater impression of depth.
Each plant has three separate ‘voices’. The botanical voice comes from Flora of NSW botanist Louisa Murray, and we learn about the Latin derivations of the genus and species names (fascinating stories in themselves) as well as the natural habitat and overall appearance of each plant. The historical voice comes from the wonderful words of Colleen Morris, telling us about traditional uses of the plants, when and where each was discovered by Europeans and usually some extra titbit of information which makes all this stuff so much more interesting to read.
All the while you are reading these great stories, the painting sings its own song from the opposite page, illustrating and adding to the words.
As with any collection of art, there are better paintings than others but all have their charm. The ones that particularly impress me in this collection are those that seem to have texture, not just shape and colour, like the combination of stiff and shiny in the leaves of Beverley Allen’s Camellia japonica ‘Cleopatra’ and also its waxy-petalled flowers; the wispy strings of Ruth Walter’s Casuarina glauca; the scaly tassels of Angela Lober’s Araucaria heterophylla; and the wiry banksia flowers in Margaret Pieroni’s Banksia praemorsa.
Other paintings are just (to my taste) so gorgeous that it’s tempting to contemplate tearing a page from the book and framing it – I am particularly smitten with Marion Westamacott’s Sarracenia species, and the delicate tracery of Anne O’Connor’s Hardenbergia violacea.
As with all fine books, the design plays an important part in the overall appeal and quality and the design by Stan Lamond is clean, crisp and uncluttered. I like the way some plants stay obediently on their side of the double page spread and others spill across the page, pushing right up to their words.
There are a few less worthy pages – not from lesser artistic skill but because some of the printed colour reproductions are too light and parts of the plant seem to me to have lost some detail. But fortunately there’s only a few and it’s a small quibble.
So you can enjoy the Florilegium of the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney by picking it up off your coffee table every once in a while and having a quick dip. Or you can curl up with it on the sofa, and relish it for the good read that it is.
From now until 30 October 2016 you can see the original paintings in an exhibition Florilegium: Sydney’s Painted Garden at the Museum of Sydney (exhibition free with Museum entry of $10 adults, concession $5).
The Florilegium of the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney – Celebrating 200 Years
Beverley Allen, Colleen Morris and Louisa Murray
300mm x 245mm
Soft Cover $65, hard cover $90.
Available from Florilegium