Sir Edwin Lutyens reckoned that there will never be great architects or architecture without great patrons, and I rather think the same is true of botanical art. The exhibition presently on show at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, entitled A New Flowering: 1,000 Years of Botanical Art, seems to reinforce the point. Displayed are works by the greats of the past — Besler, Ehret, Redouté, Jacquin and the Bauer brothers — all of whom were dependent on imaginative private patronage, and these hang alongside paintings by more than a score of contemporary artists from the collection of one patron, Dr Shirley Sherwood.
She is the guest curator of the exhibition and, incidentally, wife of James Sherwood, chairman of Orient-Express Hotels. It has been Dr Sherwood’s interest and generous patronage of many botanical artists worldwide since 1990 which has helped to promote what she calls, in the illuminating catalogue which accompanies the exhibition, ‘a new Golden Age’ for botanical art.
Oxford is a good place for this exhibition. Dr Sherwood studied botany there, for a start, and in the museums and libraries — most notably the Bodleian, the Radcliffe Science Library, the Museum of Natural History, Magdalen and Christ Church — there are rich treasures of botanical art, especially from the 17th and 18th centuries.
The oldest exhibit is the Pseudo-Apuleius Herbarium of the 1080s from the Bodleian, with an instantly recognisable thistle overlaying the text, and there is a 15th-century Book of Hours as well. But the best that Oxford has to offer must be the works by the 18th-century Bauer brothers, especially Ferdinand’s illustrations for the monumental Flora Graeca, commissioned by John Sibthorp, Oxford’s Professor of Botany, which here includes his watercolour of the extraordinary mandrake, together with works for the Marquis of Bute by Georg Ehret, who many believe is the best of the 18th-century lot.