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Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art at Kew Gardens

29/04/2008, By

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The Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art at Kew Gardens, which opened on 19th April, is the first gallery in the world dedicated to botanical art and is open to the public all year round. The gallery, designed by award-winning architects Walters and Cohen, is exhibiting precious works of art from the collections of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and Dr Shirley Sherwood, many of which have never been on public display before.

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew holds one of the world's greatest collections of botanical art, totalling over 200,000 items. Kew holds works by masters of botanical art such as G D Ehret and the Bauer Brothers, together with nineteenth century artists such as Walter Hood Fitch, who was one of the most prolific botanical artists ever. Dr Shirley Sherwood holds one of the world's most comprehensive collections of original contemporary botanical art. The new building is physically linked to the adjacent Marianne North Gallery, a permanent display of Victorian botanical and landscape paintings. The gallery space linking the two buildings will feature a selection of contemporary works from the Shirley Sherwood Collection.

Many of the works in Kew's collection require a climate-controlled environment with managed light levels. Until now, although the collection has been consulted by experts and researchers, most of the works have been kept in study collections behind the scenes. The new gallery provides the right environment and makes Kew's collections more accessible, ensuring that the 1.3 million annual visitors to Kew Gardens can see the treasures on public display.

Dr Sherwood travels extensively and has been collecting contemporary botanical art since 1990. Her comprehensive collection includes work by over 200 artists living in 30 different countries and documents the emergence of a new wave of botanical painters and the renaissance of their art form. Arguably the most important private collection of twentieth century botanical art in the world, these art works complement Kew's own collection which has a rich heritage of eighteenth and nineteenth century illustrations as well as more recent acquisitions.

Kew's collection of botanical art includes illustrations of extinct species for which the artwork may be the only surviving record. As well as being great works of art, these historically rich illustrations are scientific tools highly valued by taxonomists, horticulturalists, and researchers alike. With one quarter of the world's species of flowering plants threatened by extinction in the next 50 years, Kew has a vital role to play to inspire and deliver science-based plant conservation. The beauty, rarity and accuracy of the images displayed in The Shirley Sherwood Gallery will raise public awareness of the beauty and fragility of the natural world.

After the opening of The Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art, the Marianne North Gallery - both the building and its collections - is due to be restored and enhanced through improved interpretation, better signage and a programme of activities. This work is the subject of an application to the Heritage Lottery Fund. This beautiful space is filled floor to ceiling with a lavish collection of 832 colourful paintings by Marianne North, a Victorian amateur botanical artist, who travelled the world and left her collection to Kew. Behind the scenes, an extension to the Herbarium, Library and Archives, opening in 2009, will provide improved facilities for consulting Kew's illustrations collection.

A changing annual programme of three exhibitions is planned and the inaugural exhibition combines some of the highlights from the Kew and Shirley Sherwood Collections with support from their sponsor Jonathan Cooper, Park Walk Gallery. This first exhibition aims to show the scope of the two collections and the richness of botanical art as a whole, providing an overview of the most significant artists from c1700 through to contemporary artists. This opening exhibition includes Tulipa by G D Ehret; one of the finest botanical artists to date and whose work consistently demonstrates the longstanding importance of this area of art to science.

Polyanthus and primroses by Maria Sibylla Merian are also on display. Merian was born in 1647 and travelled to far-flung tropical lands to draw insects and plants, her combination of artistic talent and close observation of the subject in the field set a precedent for scientific illustration. There is also a selection of works by the great female flower painter Marianne North, including Banksia and Pineapple. North travelled extensively throughout the mid-19th century to paint and also met Sir William Hooker, the former Director of Kew Gardens. Her more naturalistic works conveyed the already changing environment and a large proportion were donated to Kew Gardens to be housed in the Marianne North Gallery.

Visitors are also able to see Bromelia agavoides by P J Stroobant, a piece from a collection of paintings done for a monograph that was never published, and Cleistocactus fieldianus by Christabel King a modern day botanical artist. In the autumn of 2008 the second exhibition will focus on trees; a view of the rich legacy of illustrating trees largely through detailed specimens. Future exhibitions will celebrate a range of artists and their subjects throughout the history of botanical illustration.

19th April to 19th October
Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
Surrey TW9 3AB
+44 (0)20 8332 5655

Image 1 - Georg Dionysius Ehret, 1740, Tulip
Image 2 - Sally Keir, No date, Pink Rhododendron
Image 3 - Walter Hood Fitch, 1868, Pleroma macranthum
Image 4 - Unknown artist, 19th century, Livistona mauritina

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