14 January 2022

Elegant and Enchanting

Explore the plants of south-east Asia through botanical illustration.

By Ellen Reid

Soft light and dark pink petals blossoming on a dark brown stem

Showing at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art until late March 2022, Elegant and Enchanting highlights the wealth of plant species in south-east Asia through beautiful botanical illustration.

An illustrious history

Botanical illustration has a long history. Around 60 CE, Greek botanist Pedanius Dioscorides created De Materia Medica, an illustrated book to help readers identify plant species for medicinal purposes.

Though originally used as a means of identification, by the Renaissance period botanical illustration was seen as an art form in its own right.

There was a lot of debate about whether photography would see the end of botanical illustration, but there continues to be new artists specialising in this field to this day. All the artists featured in Elegant and Enchanting are contemporary.

A drawing can provide a lot more detail than a photograph, not only by including elements that are only visible under a powerful microscope, but also by telling the story of a plant: showing what it looks like at each stage in its life cycle and at different times of year.

Title page to 'Materia Medica', with illustration of alchemist drawers on left side
Title page of 'Materia Medica', 1749 edition, © Wellcome images

Wonderfully detailed

This detail is what gives botanical illustration the ability to highlight the beauty of the natural world. It shows the elegance of plants in form and function, and the enchantment of a seed’s transformation into a new plant.

The pieces in this exhibition display this so beautifully, while combining scientific accuracy and artistic sensibility.

Though many of the plants in Elegant and Enchanting may be admired in parks and gardens, these illustrations provide an opportunity to see them from another perspective, one that encourages greater appreciation and insight into plant life.

This includes the intricacies of how seemingly fragile fruit blossom can attract pollinators and ensure the plant’s survival.

Illustration of sweet potato plant, with light purple tubers beneath vine
Sweet potato by Hideo Horikoshi, from the Shirley Sherwood Collection

Even seemingly uninteresting plants like the humble sweet potato are shown as beautifully complex, especially the part of the plant that consumers never see – the heart-shaped vine leaves and pretty, purple-centred flowers.

Kimiyo Maruyama’s Pinus palustris showcases the architectural splendour of pine needles, much overlooked as the spiky unchanging counterparts of deciduous leaves with their fiery annual autumn display.

Illustration of Broom pine, showing overlapping needles and large pine cone
Pinus palustris by Kimiyo Maruyama, © Zoe Stewart, RBG Kew

Beautiful blossoms

The exhibition’s depiction of cherry blossom is especially interesting as it shows how two modern British artists have captured the transience of this flower, alongside works from Thai, Chinese and Japanese botanical illustrators.

An exhibition case contains examples of David Hockney’s The Arrival of Spring 2020 (a Royal Academy exhibition). Hockney used a stylus on an iPad to create a series of paintings that welcomed and documented the season in his garden.

Lots of light pink cherry blossom cascading down from brown stems
Meiko Ishikawa 'Flowering Cherries', from the Shirley Sherwood Collection
Painting of dark barked cherry trees with riot of cherry blossom in pinks, whites, and greens
Print of Damien Hirst's 'Cherry Blossom: CONTROL, © Ellen Reid, RBG Kew

There is also a print from Damien Hirst’s The Virtues series, which was shown at a solo exhibition in Paris.

This large, exuberant print shows the textural quality of Hirst’s painting technique, which included him ‘attacking’ several canvases at a time with paint-laden, long-handled brushes.

In an article in the Financial Times, Hervé Chandès describes the exhibition as being like ‘”an anatomy lesson” within the “interior organs of the tree”’.

Although there is a clear dichotomy between the hyper realistic rendition of plants of botanical study and the freedom of artistic expression in Hockney and Hirst’s pieces, that desire to capture the fleetingness of cherry trees in bloom is the same.


Dr Shirley Sherwood curated Elegant and Enchanting from her own collection, and each artwork deserves more than a passing glance.

From the silky peach-bluff softness of Phansakadi Chakkaphak’s Lagerstroemia loudonii to the ultra-fine, translucent root work on Mariko Imai’s Asarun blumei, there is a lot to admire.

Soft light and dark pink petals blossoming on a dark brown stem
'Lagerstroemia loudonii' by Phansakdi Chakkaphak, from the Shirley Sherwood Collection

Elegant and Enchanting is running at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Art until 27 March 2022. Entry is included with a ticket to Kew Gardens.

Inspired to try your hand at botanical art?

Echinopsis ancistrophora painting

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