17 - 23 April 2018
The intricate art of flower power Elaine Davie
hen it comes to Botanical Art, Vicki Thomas of Betty’s Bay is counted as a player in the international Big Leagues. Her work has been included in numerous international exhibitions and projects and 12 of her paintings are featured in the prestigious Shirley Sherwood Collection of Botanical Art, housed in its own magnificent modern gallery in the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew in the UK. Every word that Vicki speaks and every brushstroke she makes tells of her passionate commitment to this form of artistic expression. She is, undoubtedly, a serious artist with a strong sense of responsibility towards the accurate representation of her subject, yet there is an overriding sense of joy about her work. On the page, the plants seem to glow with life, as if they were still living free in their own natural environment. Unusually, her entry into the genre of botanical art came by chance and through the scientific portal, rather than the artistic. Her mother-in-law was a horticulturist and for many years the Chair of the Indigenous Bulb-Growers Association, based at Kirstenbosch. Every year she would organise an annual competition and in 1987 asked Vicki (who had been interested in art since she was a child), to do a small watercolour painting of a plant on each of the prize-winners’ certificates. That did it for her. Working with a variety of eminent botanists, she learnt her trade as she went along. There was no formal training available, so it was largely a process of trial and error with occasional tips from existing botanical artists. She admits she made many mistakes at the beginning, but to this day values the scientific discipline requiring the strict attention to detail and accuracy which this experience offered her. “What the botanists needed
was an ability to communicate visually with other scientists,” she points out, “so all aspects of the plant had to be accurately portrayed. A botanist would bring me a pot with a plant in it and ask me to paint it. The first thing I had to do was to make a diagnosis of what was special about the plant and then indicate how it differed from other similar plants. This often involved showing a cross-section of the reproductive parts, using the plant’s natural architecture and then making adjustments to highlight all its natural features.” It was only later that she started developing a freer, more artistic style, incorporating her own personality in the paintings. “Every painting must, in effect, be a selfportrait, depicting your own interpretation and perception of the subject,” she explains. This is the philosophy that has guided the extensive teaching programme she has presented for the past 10 years or more, at the Universities of Stellenbosch and Cape Town. “Teaching has been a huge challenge to me,” she says, “but incredibly fulfilling. It involves analysing what each student is ready for, communicating with and guiding them, but above all, not interfering with each one’s unique style. Looking at a cross-section of my past students’ work, no one would be able to tell that I taught them – they are all completely different, from me and one another.” Vicki’s work has been widely published both locally and internationally. However, two of the projects she is proudest to have been associated with are the Highgrove (Prince Charles’ home) garden and Transylvania Florilegium (a florilegium is a collection of paintings depicting the total collection of plants in a particular place). “To be invited to contribute to these two projects was an enormous honour,” says Vicki. “The Transylvania project was particularly interesting because the Rumanian country-
Every painting must, in effect, be a self-portrait, depicting your own interpretation and perception of the subject.
” Botanical artist Vicki Thomas in her Betty’s Bay studio. side had remained relatively unspoilt over a lengthy timespan, with the result that a wide variety of its native flora has remained intact.” Vicki always draws from life. She finds that the camera distorts the image and doesn’t give a true representation of colour. She often does a quick on-site sketch, accurately capturing the colours and then working on it in her studio. Similarly, the composition of the painting is always taken from nature. Her preparation beforehand is meticulous and can take between 3 months and a year, but the painting itself is usually relatively quick, between two and three weeks. Recently, she has been working on paintings for two particularly exciting projects: Botanical Art Worldwide, and The Journey of Plants, organised by the Museum De Buitenplaats in the Netherlands. The first of these events is being organised by the Botanical Artists’ Association of South Africa, as the South African arm of a US-initiated project in which 25 countries are able to showcase their indigenous plants in paintings by local botanical artists. All the exhibitions around the
globe will open on the same day, starting with Japan and progressing through the various time zones. They will be linked by video, so that they can all be viewed by anyone anywhere in the world. The South African leg of the project, curated by Gill Condy and Karen Kemmey, opens on 17 May at the Everard Read Gallery in Johannesburg, where it will remain on show for the next three weeks. Approximately 60 artists are participating, each contributing three to four paintings. Vicki’s three are the Marsh Rose, Protea aristata and Haemanthus coccineus. The Journey of Plants exhibition will open in Eelde in Holland in September and will tour around the world until January 2019. Each participating artist is asked to submit 10 paintings, three of them depicting plants that were introduced to their country and became incorporated into its floral culture and seven depicting plants that had been successfully exported to other countries. To accompany the first three, it was necessary to research and write the story that led to the presence of the plants in their adopted country.
PHOTO: Elaine Davie Vicki has chosen the nasturtium, which found its way into the Company’s gardens in the early years of the Dutch occupation of the Cape; the Jacaranda tree from Brazil, which was chosen to populate the streets of Pretoria and Johannesburg on a massive scale, turning them into a lavender spectacle in Spring each year; and the Bougainvillea from South America. She particularly loves this story. It concerns a French maritime expedition in the 18th century which was launched to collect exotic plants from around the world. One of the botanists on the voyage smuggled his mistress and fellow-botanist, Jeanne Barré, on board disguised as a man. Sadly, he became ill and died on the journey and it was she, indeed, who discovered the plant and named it after French Admiral, Louis Antoine de Bougainville, the leader of the expedition. In undertaking this remarkable journey of discovery, this intrepid explorer also became the first woman to circumnavigate the globe. It is not hard to see why a collector of flora and breaker of boundaries should so greatly appeal to Vicki Thomas. In her own way, she is
The 18th century botanist Jeanne Barré disguised herself as a man called Jean Baret in order to join Admiral Louis Antoine de Bougainville's expedition on the ships La Boudeuse and Étoile from 1766 to 1769. Among the exotic plants found during their voyage was the Bougainvillea, named after the admiral. By joining this expedition, Barre became the first woman to circumnavigate the globe. constantly seeking new ways to hold the mirror up to the beauty and miraculous life of plants and share them with the world.