> Blogs > Library, Art & Archives blog > ‘If you can paint one leaf you can paint the world’

‘If you can paint one leaf you can paint the world’

In this latest post from the gallery, Dr Shirley Sherwood shares how she curated her current exhibition: Portraits of Leaves and Fungi, paintings from the Shirley Sherwood Collection.
Dr. Shirley Sherwood

To complement the David Nash exhibition in the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art, I have selected two groups of contemporary paintings from my collection. His work with trees inspired me to select paintings of leaves for their vital role in growth, and his work using charred and decaying wood prompted my display of fungi portraits.

Portraits of fungi

‘The Colours of Russula’ Russula sp. by Alexander Viazmensky

Although fungi have traditionally been considered plants and part of botany, scientists now agree that they are not plants at all. Lacking the ability to photosynthesize and with a distinctive type of cell wall, DNA studies show they are more closely related to animals. However, fungi in the form of mycorrhizae have an exceedingly important symbiotic association in mineral nutrition with the roots of many plant species, especially trees. Also, fungi are much involved with the decay of leaves and wood after death, facilitating the recycling of forests and woodlands.

Alexander Viazmensky has painted a number of lively portraits of fungi. He scatters sketches of pine needles and leaves of beech or birch around his paintings together with scraps of moss and ferns, the sort of debris picked up when collecting the fungi, giving clues to the habitat in which they are found.

Morchella elata by Alexander Viazmensky

I have acquired works from Viazmensky since 1992. He told me that he collects most of his specimens from the woods near to St. Petersburg. Sometimes he will have to wait several years to complete a painting that is missing a particular stage of development, perhaps an emerging ‘button’ or a fully mature mushroom or toadstool. His composition The Colours of Russula took a long time, as he needed to collect a wide range of species to fit his composition. He finds the edible Morchella elata with its convoluted, ridged and pitted surface the most challenging subject to paint. His paintings epitomise a Russian’s passion for a fungal foray and I love the vitality of his beautifully observed watercolours.

Portraits of leaves

I have always been interested in how an artist paints leaves. When I started judging botanical art in the mid 1990s I was surprised by how many novice painters gave them very superficial treatment – the flower was paramount. However I follow Ruskin who expressed it, perhaps too optimistically, 'if you can paint one leaf you can paint the world'.


Australian Tree Fern Dicksonia antartica by Stephanie Berni

In this part of the exhibition, I decided to show different stages of leaf development, starting with Stephanie Berni’s unfolding fern crozier with its tightly rolled fronds covered in hair (see above) and Martin Allen’s furry young chestnut leaves (below). At the other end of the spectrum I have included skeletal, decaying leaves by Brigid Edwards and Rebecca John. In between these are the subtle seasonal leaf changes seen in Raymond Booth’s Rosa moyesii and Malena Barretto’s large life-sized leaflet of the tropical mahogany that she found on the rainforest floor in Brazil.


Detail of Horse Chestnut Aesculus hippocastanum by Martin Allen

There are many more paintings in the exhibition showing the amazing diversity of leaves with their different shapes, sizes, colours and modifications – from thorns to tendrils. I hope that visitors will appreciate the variety and complexity of this vital part of the plant world’s photosynthesizing mechanism, as well as admire the skill with which they have been painted.

Rosa moyesii by Raymond Booth


- Dr Shirley Sherwood -


About Dr. Shirley Sherwood

Dr Shirley Sherwood is a contemporary botanical art collector who is world renowned for her extensive collections and regular exhibitions. Dr Sherwood and her husband James Sherwood, her two sons and five grandchildren all supported the building of the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art at Kew Gardens, which is the only purpose-designed and continuously open gallery in the world which is dedicated solely to botanical art.

Further information

Both books are published by Kew Publishing and are obtainable from Kew's online shop as well as the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art.