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The Young Botanical Artist Competition: Welcoming a new generation of botanical artists!

A new exhibition has opened at The Shirley Sherwood Gallery, Kew Gardens, which celebrates the talent of young botanical artists aged 16-25. It is the culmination of an idea seeded during the Covid pandemic.


The young artists who were present at the opening night to collect their certificates, with Dr Shirley Sherwood and Laura Sherwood.
The young artists who were present at the opening night to collect their certificates, with Dr Shirley Sherwood and Rachel Sherwood.

Botanical art is a challenging artform to create because it draws on the combined skills of the fine artist and the botanist. These skills can take many years to attain, and many people do not have the fortune to discover this artform in their formative years or have the time to devote to its practice until later in life.

History has offered us a few exceptions, where that rare combination of knowledge and skill has appeared in youth. Rory McEwen (1932-1982) was one such example, with his first series of published botanical illustrations appearing in the book ‘Old Carnations and Pinks’ (by the Reverend C. Oscar Moreton, 1955) when McEwen was just 23 years old, still an undergraduate reading English at the University of Cambridge.

Several highly prized works by Rory McEwen are included in the large and varied collection of botanical art amassed by Dr Shirley Sherwood OBE over more than thirty years. Whilst building her collection, Dr Sherwood has offered support to many artists and organisations to promote the artform, including being our patron here at the Association of Botanical Artists.

The possibility of unearthing emerging talent which might one day rival that of McEwen is a tantalising prospect and may have provided a little of the inspiration when, during the pandemic lockdowns of 2020, Dr Sherwood and her daughter-in-law, Rachel Sherwood, first discussed the idea of holding a competition to seek out new, young talent in the botanical art genre.

Winner of 19-25 age group: Bauhinia variegata in watercolour  by Khanh Ly Nguyen from Vietnam
Winner of 19-25 age group: Bauhinia variegata in watercolour by Khanh Ly Nguyen from Vietnam

The Young Botanical Artist Competition was the result of that conversation, launched in 2022 in collaboration with Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew. Artists aged between 16 and 25 years were invited to submit artwork inspired by trees. Over 1000 entries were received from 77 countries, making it clear that the appeal and practice of botanical art is alive and well within a new generation of artists. Fifty artworks were shortlisted for exhibition at The Shirley Sherwood Gallery, located within the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew which runs from 20 Oct 2023 to 7 April 2024.

A private view and reception for the Young Botanical Artists was hosted at the Marianne North Gallery and Shirley Sherwood Gallery on Saturday 21st October, where the award winners were announced.

Winner of 16-18 age group:	 Prunus serrula in watercolour  by Marianna Zych from Poland
Winner of 16-18 age group: Prunus serrula in watercolour by Marianna Zych from Poland

Dr Sherwood related in her speech that botanical artists seemed to be a rare breed when she first began her collection. She devoted time to tracking artists down on her travels with her late husband, even discovering one in a lucky encounter at a hairdresser’s. More than thirty years on the artform seems to be revitalised and thriving.

In the closing remarks to her speech, competition organiser Rachel Sherwood reflected: “I can think of no greater symbol of that revitalisation than all of us here at Kew today admiring what you, the next generation, have produced, and quite frankly we are astonished with the quality of your works. The exhibition looks stunning, well done all of you!”

ABA team member Elanor Wexler spoke with some of the artists featured in the exhibition. Here is a little information about them and their work:

Jack Ball (United Kingdom)

Jack Ball

Jack’s successful artwork was Cherry Blossom – Watercolour and Goache on Paper. Jack has studied Fine Art and Environmental Art, and has a master’s level qualification. Moving on from his studies he has returned to painting as his main focus and is interested in both botanical work and animals; he is starting out on making a career in this area.

Jack’s work depicts a single cherry tree (Prunus avium) branch adorned with delicate pink blossoms, bearing the promise of fruit. The flowers show the different periods of a blossom’s life, from full bloom with bright red stamens and pollen-covered ends to more aged and withered, with encroaching brown petals. Among the blossoms are rich amber leaves.

Xinyi Liu (Australia)

Xinyi Liu

Xinyi entered Avocado Seed – Coloured Pencil on Paper and was awarded runner up in the 19-25 age category. She has a degree in Fine Art and has found her own way into botanical and natural history illustration. She is thinking about where her career will take her but is seeing what happens! Xinyi came over for the exhibition from Australia for a flying three-day visit. She felt that the Shirley Sherwood Gallery was a prestigious venue to have exhibited in and agreed the journey “was definitely worth it!”

Xinyi writes about the subject of her artwork: "I rescued this seed from the sun and, although slightly burnt, it started to sprout new shoots and kept growing as I drew. It is now over 30 cm tall and has four leaves. We often forget that the avocados in our kitchen can grow into something big, so I hope my work draws attention to the resilient seed that is the starting point of a large tree."

Tabitha Taberer (United Kingdom)

Tabitha Taberer

Tabitha’s artwork is Ginkgo biloba – Acrylic paint and coloured pencil on paper. She has always loved nature and the environment and chose to study Zoology at undergraduate level. Tabitha completed GCSE and A-level art but admitted she hadn’t done so much since, and that this was her first attempt at botanical! Seeing the advert for the competition inspired her to give it a go and she is delighted to have been successful. Tabitha’s artwork stands out in the gallery for its vibrancy of colour – she explained that she used acrylic paint to achieve this which is the medium she is most comfortable using, and she plans to carry on and do more with a possible future in illustration on a nature theme.

Tabitha writes about the subject of her painting: "The ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) tree is the last living species in the order Ginkgoales and it inhabits an isolated taxonomic position. As a scientist, I enjoy natural history illustrations and wanted to encapsulate the entire tree, from its pollen and seed to the fan-shaped leaves that change to vibrant yellow in autumn, as well as the complete form with its long, wispy branches."

Sophie Leven (United Kingdom)

Sophie Leven

Sophie entered a digital illustration - The London Plane Tree – Digital print, Adobe Photoshop (from original pen and ink work). She has always been into art and nature and studied illustration at university. In her studies she focussed on illustrating nature including endangered species and worked on botanical illustrations for surface print, combining more traditional techniques with digital so it could be used for different purposes. She illustrates in ink or dip pen first, then uses photoshop to add colour digitally. “I still like the tactility of drawing physically but I love the coloured effect you can get digitally.” She is already working freelance as an illustrator and is looking for projects where she can illustrate plants and animals.

About her artwork she writes "This is the most common tree in London and it provides improved air quality, combatting pollution. The species is a key example of plants adapting to urban environments by surviving in small spaces and peeling away their bark to remove parasites. My hand-drawn ink illustration focuses on the mathematical patterning of elements such as seed heads and buds, and I added colour with a digital brush."

The ABA warmly congratulates all the artists who succeeded in having their work selected for exhibition at the Young Botanical Artist’s Exhibition. Entry to the Shirley Sherwood Gallery is included with Kew Gardens General Admission. We highly recommend that our readers visit the exhibition which runs until the 7th April 2024.

Sarah Gardner & Elanor Wexler, Oct 2023

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