The works in this exhibition took seed from a conversation between Victoria Crowe and Professor David Ingram of St Catharine’s College, Cambridge (and formerly Regius Professor of the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh) whilst she painted his portrait. Talk turned to a new body of collaborative research concerning the use of living and preserved specimens in Botanic Gardens, Museums, Herbaria and Libraries in Cambridge, Edinburgh, and Venice.
Assisted by Professor Ingram as guide to these collections, Victoria has immersed herself in research, initially working towards a new suite of etchings and a book of mixed media prints to ‘publish’ her findings. The result has become much greater than this initial proposal. The exhibition is a glimpse at some of these exciting avenues of research from an unique collaboration between scientist and artist.
As with all rewarding bits of research, the ideas have gone off in all sorts of unexpected directions. In many ways the starting points in this body of work are less to do with “real” plants, than with their symbolic history and imagery, their flattened, two-dimensional, faded herbarium records, the poetry of their botanical description, their nomenclature and labelling and their curative properties. There is also a sense of their (and all living things) transitory nature; one of the most powerful experiences was holding dried specimens of two plants in Cambridge which Darwin had collected, which are both now world extinct.
The libraries and museums of Venice, Cambridge and Edinburgh have provided new insights into the visual language of plant descriptions on paper, ceramic and fabric. The early printed and manuscript herbals are at once aged and immediate, mysterious and specific, symbolic and naive, yet attempting to be scientific.
I have always wanted the exhibition to show the thought process from first responses in notebooks and sketchbooks, through analytical drawing of specimens through to completed works. I have made a series of mixed-media and intaglio pieces which read as ‘open books’ to refer to the herbals, plant connections and symbolic references. There will also be a very limited edition of a hand-printed, drawn and hand-bound artist’s book.
Victoria Crowe RSA, 2007
The research has been made possible by St Catharine’s College, Cambridge and the Royal Scottish Academy Sir William Gillies Bequest.