More to botanical art than meets the eye

“Botanical art is both an aesthetic and a scientific discipline,” explained Hazel Cuthbertson, research specialist at Strauss & Co.

The history and tradition of botanical art in South African can be traced back centuries to the earliest colonial times. Famous Swedish naturalist and Linnaeus-apostle Peter Thunberg was already exploring Southern Africa in the 1700s, documenting and drawing the country’s unique flora and sending back specimens to The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in the United Kingdom.

The interest in plants and flora was not confined to academic institutions, Europe’s high society had an almost feverish interest in exotic specimens and artefacts from far-flung lands.

A delicate drawing of a protea or an otherworldly, primordial engraving of a cycad was as coveted by Europe’s upper crust as a ‘Kraak’ porcelain plate from China, a ‘Pronk’ still life from a Dutch master or a glass vase filled with tulips from the Orient. Their owners regarded these items as status symbols, which marked themselves as sophisticated, worldly individuals with the financial means (and connections) to procure plants and artworks from foreign colonies.

“Botanical art is both an aesthetic and a scientific discipline,” Hazel Cuthbertson, research specialist at Strauss & Co explains. Artists such as Irma Stern or Frans Oerder might be at liberty to take a certain ‘poetic licence’ with the representation of floral subjects in their still life paintings, but a botanical artist must produce an accurate representation of a plant that is uniquely identifiable at species level with all its characteristic traits. “Even though the artists all develop their own personal styles,” she explains, “a botanical artwork must conform to the conventions of scientific illustration and be of the highest standard as it is a source of information to scientists and scholars who might never see a living specimen of the plant in the wild”.

Compared to other art disciplines, woman artists have been well represented in botanical art, both locally and internationally, for well over 200 years. It’s an aesthetic discipline that has always allowed women to develop and nurture their artistic skill. Patriarchal European societies deemed it acceptable for so-called gentlewomen to learn to draw and paint in watercolour. Painting pretty, delicate botanical scenes was as desirable a social grace as embroidery or playing the piano.

“Some women took it very seriously and became career artists, for example, Maria Sibylla Merian (1647–1717) and Elizabeth Blackwell (1707–1758) are among the most highly regarded practitioners of botanical art internationally to this day,” Cuthbertson says.

Strauss & Co is therefore proud to be offering a selection of works by some of South Africa’s most significant female botanical artists, including Thalia Lincoln, Auriol Batten, Barbara Jeppe and Gillian Condy, on its forthcoming June online sale. Condy was the resident artist at SANBI (the South African Biodiversity Institute) in Pretoria from 1982 until her recent retirement and is still very active in promoting the exhibition and appreciation of botanical art.

The sale, which opens on Monday, May 31, 2021, at 8am and closes on Monday, June 7, 2021, at 8pm, features works from the corporate collection of one of South Africa’s leading financial institutions. “A particular highlight is the 11 original watercolours by Ellaphie Ward-Hillhorst (1920–1994) produced for the monograph on the genus Gasteria written by Ernst van Jaarsveld (Fernwood, 1994), an internationally recognized expert in the field of succulents.

“Works like these featured in leading South African and international scientific publications and scholarly journals and are an important part of South Africa’s botanic and aesthetic heritage,” Cuthbertson concludes.

Auriol Batten

Scadoxus puniceus

Watercolour and pencil on paper.

Estimate R3000 – R5000

Gillian Condy

Pelargonium heterophyllum

Watercolour on paper

Estimate R3000 – R5000

Barbara Jeppe

Iris japonica

Watercolour and coloured pencil on paper

Estimate R3000 – R5000

Ellaphie Ward-Hilhorst

Gasteria glomerata

Watercolour on paper

Estimate R3000 – R5000


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