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RHS Orchids - A History through Botanical Illustration - Charlotte Brooks

Reviewed by Pamela Taylor

Charlotte Brooks is the Art Curator at the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) which was founded in London (U.K.) in 1804 as a charity focussed on promoting horticulture and gardening.

As the RHS Art Curator, Charlotte overseas a collection comprising over 30,000 pieces covering 400 years of botanical art, no small task. She is the author of RHS Botanical Illustration, 'The Gold Medal Winners (2019), secretary to the RHS botanical art judging panel and Chair of Trustees for ABA.

RHS Orchids - A History through Botanical Illustration is a beautifully presented guide to the amazing collection of Orchid portraits housed in the RHS Collection in the Lindley Library in London.

RHS Orchids has over 130 beautiful botanical artworks that illustrate the detailed scientifically accurate illustrations produced by artists that range from the early botanical explorers, to contemporary botanical artists.

Figure 1. ( Disa spathulata ) by Franz (Francis) Bauer, 1790

As curator of the RHS Lindley Library for over fifteen years, Charlotte has used her extensive knowledge of the paintings held in the library to bring together a personal view of this historical collection.

This publication gets the basics right. It is attractively laid out, the artwork is faithfully reproduced and the illustrations are close to the relevant text which is descriptive and to the point. This makes it easy to relate the two.

The text is engaging, with a touch of humour, and this brings to life some of the fascinating characters involved in producing the illustrations.

For example, Nellie Roberts was the first and longest serving RHS Orchid artist illustrating life sized images of orchids. Nelly was specifically employed by the RHS to illustrate orchids awarded prizes by the RHS so that judges would have a reference collection.

Figure 2, Cattleya schoedeae ‘The Baron’ by Nelly Roberts, 1909.

Think of this collection as a modern day equivalent of a photograph where the judges could look back in the collection to compare a submission with an already awarded, same orchid species or hybrid.

Between 1897 and 1953 Nellie painted every orchid given an award by the RHS Orchid Committee.

One of her illustrations Cattleya schoedeae ‘The Baron’ painted in 1909 can be seen in the adjacent Figure 2.

Figure 3. ( Paphiopediilum micranthum) ‘Frieda’ by Deborah Lambkin, 2010.

Contrast this image with the 2010 illustration shown in Figure 3 by the current RHS Orchid Artists, Deborah Lambkin. Painted one hundred years later, the illustration of Paphiopediilum micranthum ‘Frieda’ demonstrates a more "scientific" approach to orchid illustration showing three profiles and a contextual line drawing of the whole plant.

There are a few examples of different artists depicting the same orchid and of an orchid being illustrated in different years. By placing these examples on adjacent pages it really helps making comparison of styles of painting and variations in the blooms straightforward.

This ability of the reader to 'compare and contrast' the differing styles of illustration over time, is one of the strengths of this book.

Another example from the book is the illustrations by J.L. Macfarlane of Dendrobiums, 1897 - 1899 shown in Figure 4.

Figure 4. Dendrobiums 1897 - 1899 by J L Macfarlane.

Such a feast of paintings gives intriguing insights into the different styles of the artists and how botanical illustration has changed over the last two centuries, as well as being an accurate record of the flowers painted.

Figure 5. Watercolour palette and specimen for Cattleya Mystery Zone ‘Yellow Magic’ by Deborah Lambkin, 2019.

Most of the original paintings would have been life size, however there is no indication of scale on the images in the book. The inclusion of this information would have increased even further the value of this work as a reference source for horticulturists and botanists.

Whether you wish to study the history of orchid growing and the artists who depicted the blooms, or trace how fashions and styles of painting orchids have changed over time, or marvel at the vast range of orchids that have been bred since the craze for breeding orchids took off in the nineteenth century, RHS Orchids, A History through Botanical Illustration contains a wealth of beautiful artwork, information and interest.

This attractive volume offers pleasure to botanists, botanical artists and orchid enthusiasts.

'As tempted as I may be to tell you more I do not want to preempt the content of the book for anyone reading it.’

Pamela Taylor - July 2022

Botanical artist, Botanist, Tutor and a founding ABA member. Pam is an award winning artist and a member of both the SBA and ABA. She is well known, along with Annie Morris, amongst the ABA community for her lively introductions to the various plant families. Pam is also a leading member of the ABA Education Team.


RHS Orchids, A History through Botanical Illustration

Author: Charlotte Brooks

published by ACC Art Books, 1st edition 8th April 2022

ISBN-10: 1788841611

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