Exotica: Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew


Image: Andre Demonte. Costus spiralis & Black Jacobin hummingbirds, Florisuga fuscus, 1998. Watercolour on card. Credit The Shirley Sherwood Collection, RBG Kew



Caterina Tiezzi, takes us to Exotica, a diverse collection of paintings of beautifully unusual tropical plants at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.

There are many reasons that bring people to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. When I returned there earlier this June, it was to see Exotica: a display of illustrations of rare plants and flowers.

The exhibition is on show at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art. Opened in 2008, this is the world’s first public gallery dedicated to classic and contemporary botanical art. At present, the Gallery is also hosting a revelatory display of sketches and works by glass sculptor Dale Chihuly, which merits a visit and another article, but this time I’m after botanical illustrations. 


Image: Alvaro E. X. Nunes. Bromelia sp., 2009. Watercolour on paper. Credit The Shirley Sherwood Collection, RBG Kew


The curators of Exotica have played with the concept of other and of showing something in a different context from where it originated. In doing this, they bring on display the works of many contemporary botanical artists. As the wall text at the entrance points out, many of the specimens shown in this exhibit originated in the southern hemisphere, especially in the tropics, and they were either drawn on location or in the glasshouses at Kew.

Image: Alice de Rezende. Victoria cruziana, 2004. Watercolour on paper. Credit The Shirley Sherwood Collection, RBG Kew


Shown in a white cube style display, these modern artworks quickly capture my attention. As I make my way through the gallery, I marvel at these curious illustrations. The strange and unfamiliar plants are often depicted against white backgrounds and this artificial graphic isolation guides my eye further in. I get lost in the precise details that make up these images. Suddenly, I am struck by the minutiae of the forms and the complex colours of these exotic plants and flowers.


Image: Vicki Thomas. Adenia hastata. Watercolour on paper on FV. Credit The Shirley Sherwood Collection, RBG Kew


In the Shirley Sherwood Gallery at Kew, these modern illustrations allowed me to appreciate natural wonders that I would be hard-pressed to see in my day-to-day life. Through the hands and eyes of expert artists I am skilfully guided to admire details that photographs might not be able to reveal so easily. For example, a composite picture can record simultaneously different views of a plant, together with its fruits and seeds. This remains one of the critical powers of botanical illustrations, not to mention the artistic abilities each work displays.

If you had entered this gallery with the notion that botanical illustrations are somewhat of a lost art, this exhibition will make you think again. 


Exotica is open at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew from 13 April to 27 October 2019

Written by Caterina Tiezzi, all images courtesy of Kew Gardens.