So, why Rhododendrons?

My mural on Woodland Grove in Greenwich is composed of mandala patterning overlaid with bright and bold rhododendron plants, in reference to the client's connection to India. There are so many wonderful plants that I could have chosen for this commission, but in the end I wanted to work with the rhododendron for the following reasons.

A key one was that, although they seem to bloom on every street come April and May, it came as a surprise that rhododendrons are not actually native to the UK. In fact, many varieties grow aggressively and often choke local vegetation. When I found out that they can grow in the Himalayas where they mark the start of spring (although this is being affected by climate change), I knew that I wouldn't be alone in finding this a spectacular vision in contrast to our everyday experience of these plants. Applying layers of Indian mandalas in the painting alludes to this.

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The splendour of the Rhododendrons is marvellous: there are 10 kinds on this hill, scarlet, white, lilac, yellow, pink, marroon [sic]: the cliffs actually bloom with them.
— Joseph Hooker, a mid-19th century plant hunter in Asia

I've also been fascinated by 19th century plant hunters and botanical illustrators, with accounts by the likes of Joseph Hooker and Marianne North of encountering rhododendrons in the wild particularly evocative (I highly recommend reading 'Vision of Eden: The Life and Work of Marianne North'). So, I really liked the idea of Londoners being able to stumble across these vibrant plants on an ordinary street, where they have been re-exoticised in a spectacle that encourages one to almost step inside the plant, seeing it in a whole new light.

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And I really enjoyed discovering how alien the plants look when studied close up and wanted to share and encourage this close observation with viewers. So, from the curved tubes of the stamen with tips that look like eyes topped with pollen, to the fragility of the petals stamped with striking, branching patterns, the mural offers an intimate glimpse of a plant often experienced in passing. 

Researching Rhododendrons

Over the past month or so I have been preparing for an exciting mural commission in south London, which I will begin painting in less than a week. The artwork will adorn an exterior brick wall, owned by a family with strong links to India, with mandala patterns intermingled with detailed studies of the Rhododendron, a plant native to Asia but now widespread and familiar to us all in the UK.  

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The are some fascinating facts and stories about the Rhododendron plant, which I will share over the coming weeks whilst I work on the mural. I've so enjoyed learning more about this beautiful plant! But in the meantime, here are a few snaps from my research phase...

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Art & Science

Kew Gardens has to be one of my most favourite places in the world. I've exhibited, visited and painted in the gardens but up until this point I have never stepped foot inside the Library. However the Arts Council supported project 'Botanical Bentley' has provided the perfect excuse to delve into the archive! This week I had the great pleasure of browsing Kew's Art Collection

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Below is a sample of some of the exquisite botanical illustrations that I came across during my visit. All by women artists from the late 18th / early 19th century, these detailed drawings and annotations have been beautifully painted in ink and watercolour. It must have required great concentration to create such accurate illustrations - the detail is completely fantastic. And I can only imagine how exciting it would have been to study a species entirely new to man! This was the time, of course, when the world was discovering exotic plants from around the world and 'Britain was in the full grip of a plant obsession'. These artists were responsible for capturing essential information that ensured that the each plant was categorised correctly, which was such an important role and easily be forgotten when admiring the beauty of these works of art.

Images reproduced with kind permission of the Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

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The Picturesque Garden

Continuing with my research into the history of Bentley Priory, which feeds into the development of mural designs for the Botanical Bentley project, this week I've been looking at the 'Picturesque' garden and instructions for illustrating flowers.

  Bowles's Florist Containing Sixty Plates of Beautiful Flowers, 1774, Frontispiece

Bowles's Florist Containing Sixty Plates of Beautiful Flowers, 1774, Frontispiece

In 1788, Bentley Priory was bought by the 9th Earl of Abercorn, who enlisted the help of architect Sir John Soane and landscape gardener Sir Uvedale Price to develop the site. At that time, Picturesque gardens were in vogue. They were intended to appeal to the soul as well as to the eyes of visitors. Anything too ordered or neat was rejected, and optical illusions were employed to create a sense of theatre. Planting was often irregular, almost random, with a wide variety of natural materials, textures and colours introduced to reflect the composition of landscape paintings. Hence Picturesque. As part of my research into this style of gardening I visited Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, to consult their special collections. William Gilpin's Essays on Picturesque Beauty was a great source of inspiration. Likewise, instructions for drawing and painting flowers 'according to nature' as laid out in Bowles's Florist provided a unique insight into the manner in which botanists examined plants in the 18th Century.  Very kindly, Kew has allowed me to share some of the images I took during my visit:

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Images reproduced with kind permission of the Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

An ACE project

In February I received the wonderful news that Arts Council England are going to fund my project 'Botanical Bentley' through their Grants in Aid scheme. Since then I have been working very closely with Bentley Priory Museum to deliver the creative project, delving into their collection and exploring the building to discover botanical symbols and floral motifs that form part of the site's heritage. 

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Whilst the Museum primarily tells the story of the Battle of Britain, the building and surrounding grounds have a rich history beyond World War Two. Through 'Botanical Bentley', I will be shining a spotlight on how the landscape gardens changed according to fashions of the 18th and 19th century. I will also examine the use of floral symbols in military uniform and medals.

I absolutely adore researching new projects! It gives me an excuse to focus on intriguing details often overlooked and it can be a very inspiring to re-examine the familiar with fresh eyes. Here are just a few snaps from my first site visit and images from my research trip to Kew Archives.

Images reproduced with kind permission of the Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

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