Posts Tagged ‘botanical art’

William Kilburn

Browsing through the gift shop in the Queensland Art Gallery, I discovered a large booklet, “18th Century English Floral Patterns,” by William Kilburn. Its contents included twelve elegant pieces of gift wrapping paper. ‘Wouldn’t my friends and family members enjoy receiving a present wrapped in one of these beautiful papers?’  So into my carry bag it went, then off to the counter to be purchased.

William Kilburn (1745 – 1818) was born in Capel-Street, Dublin to the Irish architect Samuel Kilburn, and his wife, Sarah Johnston. As young William grew and developed, his emerging artistic talents led him into water colour painting and botanical drawing. While he was apprenticed to a fabric printer he also mastered sketching and engraving.

After his father’s death, William Kilburn decided to seek his fortune in England. He moved to Bermondsey, a district in south London, where he found living quarters near the Curtis nursery. Here he met William Curtis, an English botanist who was currently engaged in the publication of his Flora Londinensis. This six volume botanical work was devoted to illustrations and descriptions of plants growing wild in the environs of London. On discovering Kilburn’s amazing talents, Curtis immediately hired him to produce hand-coloured copperplate prints for the collection.

Botanical print

Before Kilburn entered into this engagement, he briefly returned to Ireland to bring his mother and sister back with him where they all settled into a comfortable home in Bermondsey. As its garden and green-house were situated near the Curtis nursery, he occupied himself as a botanical illustrator, by drawing and engraving plants for the Curtis Londinensis series.

Through the exacting discipline of botanical art, Kilburn refined his ability to reproduce plants in authentic detail. Yet the rigidity of the botanic art form also fuelled his desire to adopt a more creative, free-flowing expression – one that would ultimately carry him back to water colour painting and a career in design for printed fabrics. In this new endeavour he would fine fame and financial success, by owning and managing his own calico and muslin printing factory in Wallington, Surrey.


Calico, the name given to any cotton cloth from the East, was first imported from Calicut, India. Kilburn’s factory in Surrey also produced muslin chintz—fine cotton and linen printed calicoes—of exceptionally fine quality. As many of his patterns played out against luxuriant dark-coloured grounds, the public found these new fabrics stunning and exciting.

Since many of Kilburn’s designs did not provide for small repeating patterns, these were reproduced with large woodblocks using a technique of calico printing that had originated in India. Kilburn’s hand-painted sketch would have been translated onto a woodblock by another craftsman. Outlines for each separate colour were made by eye on the blocks, resulting in the need for several blocks to complete the pattern  that was repeated across the surface of the cotton. Fortunately in the late eighteenth-century, dyes had also become available to the designer in a broad range of new colours.


Flowers and arabesques had first been arranged by Kilburn on a white or pastel ground. Later he replaced ribbons with garlands tied into knots and bows. Finally his delicate seaweed and coral motifs, interwoven with leaves and flowers, suggested the identification of decoration with the creative life force itself. These later and richly patterned fabrics were expensive to purchase, costing a guinea per yard. One of his most beautiful floral/seaweed chintzes was presented to Queen Charlotte, wife of England’s King George III. Her gown was probably made when the textile was new and most fashionable, about 1790.

In 1786, Kilburn discovered that Ralph Yates, a London warehouse man, was regularly stealing and selling his designs to Peel & Co of Lancashire. This fabric printing company was copying Kilburn’s original designs and reproducing them on a cheaper fabric, as were factories in Manchester, Aberdeen and Carlisle. A trusted friend, Edmond Burke, presented a bill into Parliament, “To secure the calico printers, the copyright in original design.” This design copyright protection bill was passed in May, 1787, securing the legal right of ownership to Kilburn for his creative work.

V and A Museum

The Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington, London holds a collection of 223 original water colour designs on paper in the Kilburn Album. Many are representations of native British plants, and demonstrate his skill both as a botanical illustrator and a creative designer. This collection is available for public viewing on request. A digital archive of Kilburn’s patterns is also accessible from the online V & A archives.

Even today  Kilburn is not forgotten, as the stunning beauty of his work is available for purchase from Maxwell & Williams designer home wares. The William Kilburn Collection of fine bone china tea pots, mugs, cups, saucers and plates are inexpensive and dishwasher safe. I own a little tea set featuring my favourite Kilburn pattern—Midnight Blossom—that is always a delight to use for special occasions. Thankfully, this is another means whereby Kilburn’s nature inspired work will live on, for many to enjoy.

Tea set

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Midnight Blossoms, William Kilburn (1745 – 1818)

… Phlox, lilac misted
under a quarter moon,
with sweet smells
of night-scented stock.
The garden is very still
It is dazed with moonlight,
contented with perfume …

Amy Lowell


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ImageWheel Flower, Stenocarpus sinuatus (1929) woodblock print,
hand coloured in gouache on brown mulberry paper.
Image courtesy of the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

   Women engaged in the creative arts have often struggled to make a place for themselves by building a public profile that recognizes and rewards their endeavours. Moving against this trend, a small number of women have tasted success through the application of talent, determination, and relentless hard work. One such woman was Margaret Preston, who is still recognized today for her outstanding achievements as a painter and printmaker.

Margaret Rose McPherson (1875 – 1963) was born in Adelaide, South Australia, to David and Prudence McPherson. After the family moved to Sydney in 1885, Margaret enjoyed the benefits of a quality education. At this time her artistic talent was noted, so private art study began with William Lister, a well-known painter of seascapes and coastal subjects. While still in her teens, Margaret was accepted by the prestigious National Gallery of Victoria Art School, then flourishing under the direction of Frederick McCubbin. Margaret’s talents also won her several scholarships, one of importance to the Adelaide School of Design for  personal study with Hans Heysen.

In Adelaide where she was nicknamed, ‘Mad Maggie,’ a student fondly recalled her as a lively redhead who was either an advanced student or an instructor of some sort. Margaret was drawn toward the genre of still life painting as she valued this endeavour over the more lucrative and popular forms of landscape and portrait painting. Her time in Adelaide caused her to firmly set her compass and in no time she was off and moving on her way.

Margaret Preston, Self -portrait (1930) oil on canvas.
Image courtesy of the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Always an eager traveler, Margaret undertook many study trips to Europe and the British Isles. In August of 1918, she and Gladys Reynell, a former student and close friend, taught art classes to shell-shocked soldiers at Searle Hayne Neurological Hospital in Devon. On the return voyage Margaret met her future husband, William George Preston, a gunner returning from service with the Australian Imperial Force. The couple  married in December and settled in Mossman, Sydney. Bill Preston became a director of Hordern & Sons, Tooheys and other companies. He was a fervent supporter of her work, and Margaret’s financial security now enabled world-wide travel to study and experiment with new styles and techniques.

During a visit to Paris, Margaret became captivated by the Chinese and Japanese art displayed at the Musee Guimet. Here her perceptions of artistic vision and expression became radically altered. The study of Japanese art awakened her senses: to a delight in asymmetry, to pattern as the dominant element of design, the celebration of a particular flower or plant, and an engagement with deliberate primitism. But it was in the “friendly little craft” of woodblock printing that Margaret Preston would excel.

Australian Rock Lily this oneAustralian Rock Lily, Dendrobium speciousum (1933) hand coloured
woodblock print. Image courtesy of the Queensland Art Gallery GOMA.

Working within a small scale, and with readily available materials, Margaret used the knowledge acquired from her previous study of Japanese prints to cut, print and hand colour her own highly stylized botanical designs. Inexpensive to produce, her woodblock prints were aimed at the domestic market where they gained wide appeal.

Woodblock printing is created by moving through a number of steps. First a block of wood is selected, sanded and rubbed smooth before a design is drawn on its surface. Small scalpels cut away the borders and outlines of the design along the grain of the wood, leaving a thin protruding edge to take the ink. Spaces within the outlines are scooped out using chisels of different sizes. Oil or water based ink is poured onto a glass surface followed by a roller smoothing the ink over the glass. Finally the inked roller is applied to the raised surfaces of the design. A piece of quality paper is dropped over the block then gently rubbed—Margaret used the back of a spoon—until the design is transferred onto the paper. After the ink has dried, the open spaces are hand coloured with gouache or another type of water based paint.

Throughout her entire career Margaret Preston remained fanatical about botanical, as the majority of her prints feature Australian native flowers as their subjects. Within this genre directed by a Japanese aesthetic, she selected bold, bright colours on plane surfaces, avoiding shadows or any form of centeredness. Inspired by the prints of the ukiyo-e school, she cultivated an instinct for the asymmetrical zig-zag arrangement of forms and cut-off compositions. Even her earlier monogram, MRM, the initials of her maiden name, or the MP adopted after her marriage, had occasionally been cut in the manner of a Japanese seal and inked in red. While comparing her approach to the craft of printmaking with that of the great Japanese artists, she always stressed that her work represented a Western form of wood cutting, quite different from that of the East.

WaratasWaratas, Telopea speciosissima (1925) hand coloured woodblock print.
Image courtesy of the Australian National Gallery.

Fine art has always featured plants by showcasing them in many mediums: painting, drawing, print making, embroidery, and photography. Early botanical art, with its formal and accurate presentation of the seed, the bud, and the mature flower, was both artistic and scientific. The popularity of global travel in the 19th century led to the discovery and classification of many new species of flora and the public was eager to study and appreciate them. Only later were flowers, shrubs and trees presented with artistic freedom.

Margaret Preston, one of Australia’s foremost artists between the wars, sent shock-waves through art circles with her lively art, her spirited journalism and her enthusiasm for work and travel. During the past two decades The National Gallery of Australia has assembled an extraordinary collection of her etchings, woodcuts, monotypes, paintings and stencils. Of all our Australian artists, she is the best known for her vibrant and decorative prints of Australian birds, flowers and landscapes. Her last major exhibition was held in 1953 at the Sydney Macquarie Gallery where she exhibited 28 stencil prints. The 78 year old artist attended, carrying a bouquet of Australian wild flowers in one of her own hand woven baskets.

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My new eBook, Australia – Land of Timeless Beauty, is published in the Amazon Kindle Store. The book can be purchased and sent with a click of your mouse to a Kindle, iPad, Tablet, PC or any other electronic reading device. An engaging collection of lyric essays is found here. Each one celebrates a place that is unique within the ‘Great South Land,’ while every location, with its beauty and variety, establishes a living link to the land that nurtures and sustains it.

Many places cry out for words to shape the stories embedded within them. These include stories of the people who have claimed them and whose lives somehow articulate them. All the diverse parts of Australia–deserts to mountains, rainforests to beaches, rugged escarpments to lush tropical wetlands–provide these special compass points on the longitudes and latitudes of the land I call home.

For further information click on my book page.

I’m happy to be back online and blogging once again.

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Rosa Gallica (Provins royal)

I keep a set of treasured post cards in my desk drawer, and occasionally spread them out across the table to admire their beauty. Purchased from the Queensland State Art Gallery, they feature the exquisite botanical paintings of Pierre-Joseph Redoute.  His art works made him famous during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries when he became known throughout Europe as, ‘The Raphael of Roses.’

Redoute was born into a family of illustrious painters, in the Belgian town of Saint- Hubert. He left home when he was only thirteen, determined to make a living as an itinerant interior decorator and portrait painter. On his travels, Redoute regularly visited museums to study the paintings of the great Flemish and Dutch artists. At age 23 he made his way to Paris where he joined his elder brother, Antoine-Ferdinand, now a successful interior decorator and scenery designer. During the next few years he worked in his brother’s studio to fulfil new commissions and other creative projects.

Visiting the public gardens in Paris to study and sketch flowers, Redoute attracted the attention of the famous botanist, Charles L’Heritier de Brutelle. Recognizing Redoute’s talent, L’Heritier became the young artist’s mentor, teaching him the fundamentals of flower structure through the dissection and depiction of plant anatomy, so necessary for botanical illustration. Drawn enthusiastically into this rapidly growing discipline, Redoute now began to embark on his career in the employ of Charles L’Heritier as an illustrator and flower painter

Redoute Roses, The Bishop 4

The Dutch painter, Gerard van Spaendonck, was also interested in Redoute’s talent. He held the Professorship of Botanic Painting at the French National Museum of Natural History. Here in the Royal Paris Botannical Garden, Redoute was introduced to a world of new and exotic plants and to the art of scientific botanical illustration through his new Dutch mentor.

Spaendonck’s technique of painting pure watercolours directly onto a translucent background of vellum produced flower paintings with a clear, bright transparency. This technique was further refined and perfected by Redoute. At the same time L’Heritier commissioned three paintings from him to the Stirpes novae, a publication with illustrations and descriptions of little-known plants. It would mark the first of many publications filled with the coloured prints of Redoute’s paintings.

In the eighteenth century, coloured prints suitable for publication were painstakingly engraved onto a metal plate—a mirror image likeness of the original painting. The engraving process consisted of building graduations of tone and shadow by massing lines together. In 1787, during a visit to London, Redoute was introduced to the process of stipple-engraving by Francesco Bartolozzi. This new technique used dots and lines, rather than simply lines, to build the graduations from light to darker colours. Compared to line engraving, the dots produced more delicate and realistic results. Bartolozzi also demonstrated the process of single-print colour printing. This method made it possible to add multiple colours to the plate so it passed through the printing press only once. Occasionally special copies had their final colouring touched up by hand. Redoute brought these new techniques back to Paris, greatly enhancing his personal art of print-making. This earned him a royal medal for his achievements from King Louis XVI in 1796.

Rosa Alba

Once again L’Heritiere’s connection to the French Royal Court introduced Redoute to its inner circle and to Queen Marie Antoinette. Soon after, he became her personal teacher, her chief flower painter and tutor to the royal children.

After the Revolution, Napoleon Bonaparte’s military successes brought him to power and Redoute soon gained the patronage of his wife, Empress Josephine. Her acquisition in western Paris of the Chateau Malmaison, resulted in the creation of her magnificent gardens of exotic plants. These existed not only to present a beautiful space, but to document every plant scientifically. Redoute flourished here after completing a series of watercolours on vellum for Empress Josephine’s bedroom. His brother, Antoine-Ferdinand, was also called upon to use his set-designing arts to decorate the room’s interior.  Under her patronage Redoute began to work on his most beautiful and widely reprinted book, Les Roses, which was published to critical acclaim. In the years that followed several additional volumes of prints were also produced. Among these are: Jardins de Malmaison and Les Lilacees, a comprehensive work on the lilac flower, complete with 486 colour plates.

Redoute had  proved his capacity to survive in France’s changing fortunes: designer and painter to the cabinet of Queen Marie-Antoinette, designer from the French Academy of Sciences, flower painter to the Empress Marie-Josephine and teacher of Napoleon’s second wife, Marie-Louise of Austria. At eighty years of age, Redoute conceived plans for a new project—a huge floral tribute requiring the contribution of a number of specialized artists. One evening as he studied a white lily flower, this task was ended by a massive stroke. He died on June 20, 1840 and was buried in the Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. One of his biographers, Roger Madol, noted that Redoute’s immortality rested on the fact that throughout the years he remained faithful to one queen who never went out of fashion: the rose.

Portrait by Baron Francoise Gerard

Pierre-Joseph Redoute, (1759 – 1840)
Portrait by Baron Francoise Gerard

Floral images, details from Les Roses, courtesy of Benedikt Taschen Verlag

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Marian Ellis Rowan, artist, naturalist and explorer, (1848 – 1922) was   born in Melbourne, Australia. She grew up with her family in Mt Macedon where she enjoyed life in their large, comfortable home set in a spectacular 26 acre garden. A family friend, Ferdinand von Mueller, the Government Botanist of Victoria, designed the garden for her father.

Always known as Ellis, a love of nature and artistic talent was inherited from her grandfather, John Cotton, who wrote and illustrated two books on British birds. Yet despite a fine education, Ellis received no formal training in art. It was only through the encouragement of her English relatives that Ellis continued to paint wild flowers―a genre that brought her lasting fame.

To produce her paintings, Ellis frequently used gouache with its quick drying water-based opaque colours. Genuine water-based gouache has been in use since ancient times. Now packaged in tubes like oil paints, gouache can be diluted with water to create translucent effects, such as those used by Ellis to enhance the background of her paintings. It also lends itself to applying fields of vibrant colour. This medium suits the fine, precisely detailed painting so necessary for botanical art. Mixed with just enough water on the palette, gouache can also be re-wetted for use when required, making it practical and affordable.


Her choice of grey-coloured quality drawing paper allowed for fast drying, so she could paint quickly. No initial drawings were implemented as Ellis painted directly onto the paper. Her finished work was balanced, compositionally strong and carefully rendered. She frequently signed her name with a fine brush, at the bottom of the paper.

From 1879 to 1893 Ellis worked continuously; exhibiting in Australia, India, England, Europe and the United States. Her paintings received many awards and in 1888, at Melbourne’s Centennial International Exhibition, she carried off the gold medal, its highest honour.  Her male counterparts, among them Tom Roberts, openly voiced their criticisms in the press by ridiculing her floral paintings as being vulgar and trite. An undercurrent of this theme―that only inferior art is produced by women―continued throughout most of her lifetime.

After her husband’s death from pneumonia in 1892, Ellis became a woman of means and was rarely found in Australia. A two-year stay in England brought swift fame when Queen Victoria accepted several of her paintings. Ellis illustrated three botanical texts for Alice Lounsberry, and wrote her first book, Flower Hunter in Queensland and New Zealand. Many of her floral compositions were copied by the Royal Worcester Porcelain Company onto porcelain and fine china for the Australian market. England had welcomed and embraced her warmly.


Her paintings with their strong composition, vibrant colours and softer landscape backgrounds were also botanically accurate. This was noted by the botanist, Sir Ferdinand von Mueller, who classified and named many previously unidentified Australian native plants from her paintings. Publishing his findings signified the importance of her careful and detailed work. 

By age 70, her health was broken from severe exhaustion and malaria, probably contracted during her last two visits to Papua and New Guinea. Returning home in 1920 Ellis curated her final exhibition of paintings in Sydney. 1000 paintings were displayed; to that time it was the largest collection exhibited in Australia. She returned to her original family home and beautiful garden in Mt Macedon where she died on 4th October, 1922.

The Rowan collection is held at the National Library of Australia―together with her portrait painted posthumously in 1926―by Sir John Longstaff. Through her life-long labour of love, Ellis Rowan has enriched our lives by enabling us to appreciate the beauty and inspiration found in the natural world around us.

Illustrations: Giant Water Lily, Flame Azalea and Ulysses Butterflies, courtesy of the State Library of Queensland




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