Sunday, 19 April 2020

British Wildflowers Exhibition: Easton Walled Gardens 2020

Before the country went into lockdown, I participated in a small exhibition of British flowering plants at Easton Walled Gardens, Grantham. My intention was to publish this short piece at the time of the exhibition but between flooding and pandemics I kind of forgot and never finished this post. So, several weeks after the event here it is. I've chosen just a few of the 14 works works to discuss the stories behind the paintings..... there are so many more that I wanted to paint. I suspect this may be the last exhibition I'll be participating in for a while but looking on the bright side, now is the time to paint!
My daughter Polly and good friend Dawn Wright also took part in the exhibition. For my part, all of my works were on vellum, here's a small selection. I'll add a slideshow later of all my works.
Scottish Bluebell orHarebell, Campanula rotundifolia (Campanulaceae) on Kelmscott vellum. I found this plant growing in a wall in Grantown on Spey in NE Scotland. it was hanging on to the wall by a little tuft of moss that must have been retaining enough moisture for life support(see below). I've always loved this flower ever since I first set eyes on it when I arrived in Scotland in the late 1980's. The little bells nodded at the roadside as we drove by and I can recall stopping to see it. Its a difficult colour to achieve on vellum because of the creamy colour of the substrate. Cobalt blue with a touch of quinacridone magenta was the key ingredient. I'm now growing from seed for the garden this year. 
It's surprising what a bit of moss will support! The Scottish Bluebell is quite long flowering plant, it provides food of pollinating bees after many other summer flowers have bloomed. There is a strong association with hares and these flowers, hence the name, it was believed in folklore, that witches transformed into hares, using the flowers in spells for their transformation.  Many people also believed fairies lived in patches of harebells and if you happened to walk through such a patch, this could result in the fairies casting a spell, which is why it's also known as Dead Man's Bells! This painting seemed to take forever, painting on vellum is a slow process at the best of times but has the added benefit of paint being  easily removed if it's not going to plant....as a result some days, I ended up with less than I started with.
The harebell flowers are so small, papery and delicate to paint it was a real challenge, so I decided to paint a larger version of just one flower. I wouldn't normally do this but it seemed like I needed a closer view of these little flowers and it made a nice addition to the painting of the whole plant.

Carfully adding soft layers of colour, larger areas of colour are more difficult on vellum because its's easy to lift the previous layer if too much water is used, dry brush work is essential.

Scaled up flower x3 on Kelmscott, almost finished

The second subject is also from Scotland, Linnaea borealis, the Twinflower, I've written a blog about this one before, but here are the little paintings.  This is one of out smallest flowers,  so a again I painted a larger study of the flowers. The Twinflower is in the Caprifoliaceae family, better know for Honeysuckle, which seems slightly surprising. It's a creeping plant that forms giant clonal mats of flowers as shown in the video below. It was a favourite of Carl Linnaeus and was named after him. It's and is found boreal pine forests, hence the second part of the name, it can also be found in birch and heather but needs sufficient shade to do well. It occurs in many other northern hemisphere countries, where it is abundant but in Scotland it is rare and associated with the remnants of the old Caledonian pine forests.
Beginnings using the sketchbook studies made in Scotland



The Twinflower painting is on goatskin Kelmscott which is mounted on a heavyweight board prepared by William Cowley, the only remaining vellum maker in the UK. I wanted to show this plant in its simplest form, showing the tiny twin headed flowers and creeping stems and tiny toothed leaves. In the UK this flower is only found in Scotland. It has had a difficult time existing with humans, land clearance up to the 1930's meant that populations of the plants became too isolated for pollinators to cross-pollinate, as a result the population was reduced to around 50 sites and the genetic diversity reduced. Looking at the video you might think it's a healthy population but the plant is actually a giant clone which makes it vulnerable. To add to the challenge of survival,  it only produces one seed per flower, so should any disease or environmental change occur the entire clone will could be lost. Scottish Natural Heritage and Plant Life have been working to reintroduce the plant and the good news is that it's working but is an ongoing challenge.  
Enlarged study of single flower stem on Kelmscott vellum, with the characteristic two nodding bell flowers ( x2.5). The plant is covered in small sticky hairs and when the single seed develops it is also covered in these hairs,  the seed sticks to passing animals who unknowingly disperse it to new sites in the forest. 
The giant clonal plant spreads across the forest floor and the fills the air with sweet perfume.  

The next plant is from the same family and is Honeysuckle, otherwise known as Woodbine, unlike the Twinflower it is common just about everywhere, the native version, Lonicera periclymenum, is widespread and found in hedgerows and woodland but there are many other species of honeysuckle that have become naturalised.

Honeysuckle flower, bud and fruit cycle on natural veiny vellum, using the vellum markings as part of the composition  can be effective. It's often necessary to use some 'body colour' on darker vellum - just a touch of opaque white is mixed with colour and used on the flower edges and filaments to make them 'pop' off the surface. 
Honeysuckle has a heady perfume at night, which pollinating moths, such as the Elephant Hawk Moth love but honeysuckle upports many insects, such as the White Admiral butterfly and of course many bees, but only a long tongued insect can reach the deep nectaries in the flower tube. Birds love the red berries in autumn and all round, it's a great plant for wildlife. This one grows outside my window so it was easy to access.

In plant folklore its long been associated with fidelity and young women were forbidden to bring the flowers into the house. Apparently it was believed that honeysuckle made the dream of their true love and stimulated risqué dreams! But having honeysuckle growing around the door was common and grown to prevent evil spirit from entering whilst bringing good fortune to the inhabitants.

An older study page of Honeysuckle, which I've painted many times.  
The Honeysuckle was a bit of an ad-hoc composition and I let the vellum guide me with no particular plan. I chose the focal point flower of the twining flower stem first and took it form there, the vellum was large enough to add more, I added the berries, then decided to sketch some additional stems onto tracing paper to see how they looked before taking the plunge. I don't often work this way but it's  nice to have a more organic approach to painting sometimes ... a 'see what happens' approach without being overly precious.
Rough scribbled ideas! In the end I decided to go for the trio of stems as a composition because  it created a square format and avoided the 'X'  shapes in the crossing stems that can be distracting from the focal point, I felt that the veins described the habit of the stems without over complicating it. I often scrawl ideas onto tracing paper in this way - it gives me  a rough idea of what works and what doesn't. 
The last one for this post is Primula vulgaris, I painted this some years ago on Kelmscott  (see below) and was always curious to know how it would looks on dark veiny vellum, so I repeated the painting with some alterations on a very dark veiny vellum. I wasn't sure if the pale lemon flowers would work so well on a dark surface but thought I'd give it a try. I used quite a lot of the opaque Lemon Yellow Nickel Titanate, which I'd also used on my previous painting, but it's important to maintain some of the substrate showing through because there's nothing worse than overly heavy painting on vellum, which kills the luminosity - it's a fine balance of 'how much' is enough on vellum.

I put cobalt blue under the leaves in the background and also on those with stronger highlights, surprisingly this creates the appearance of distance or highlights  depending on how its used. I kept quite a lot of the vellum showing through the colour as I liked this effect. The roots were very easy to paint almost created by the veins in the surface.
The image starts to emerge and you can see the effect where  the opaque colour is used on the flower petals
Finished painting on dark vellum above 2020 and below the original painting 2012 on Kelmscott. Two very different looks. Obviously I didn't have the plant for the second painting, neither did I have the original painting but I did still have photographs, studies and several other plants to work with,  so it wasn't so difficult to repeat....now spot the difference! 

The exhibition was due to to open for Easton's Snowdrop week on the15th February, alas the high winds and floods put a stop to that on the first day and weather proved to be a bit of a challenge that week! Easton Walled Gardens is a beautiful venue to exhibit at, I spent a few daysin the Coach House painting. The exhibition ran until the 15th March and we took it down at the beginning of the social distancing. It was pretty much the last time we left the house.



A painting day in the Coach House gallery, where the light is wonderful.

Snowdrops week! the sun came out eventually and all was good! 



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