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Plant Focus

A guest post by Matt Candeias, host of the In Defense of Plants podcast and blog

Christine Battle: Botanical Illustrator

IOS member Christine Battle has always had an interest in botanical art. Though she was only 14 when she was first smitten by a print of Albrecht Dürer’s watercolor (Great Piece of Turf), it wasn’t till almost four decades later that she began painting plants, after receiving a birthday present of a two-day botanical art drawing course in 2006. Also a keen plantswoman, Christine has planted an impressive collection of oaks, including over 200 taxa, in her arboretum at Congrove. This artist/collector combination makes her an ideal subject for our series on Oak Artists, which we started in Oak News & Notes Vol. 17 No. 2 with Keiko Tokunaga. It is also a timely choice, given the upcoming Oak Open Day due to take place at Congrove on July 6.

Christine continued her training at the English Gardening School at the Chelsea Physic Garden in London and has exhibited at the Royal Horticultural Society and at the American Society of Botanical Artists. She is a member of the Chelsea Physic Garden Florilegium Society, a group of internationally famous award-winning artists engaged in illustrating all the plants that grow in Chelsea Physic Gardens. You can read further details of her career and her technique on her website.

Her series of paintings 'New Trees,' inspired by the book of the same name by John Grimshaw and Ross Bayton, won a Gold Medal at the RHS Malvern Spring Show in May 2010. And in 2013 she was invited to exhibit at the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation in Pittsburgh, USA, and her painting of a Cercis siliquastrum (Judas tree) is in their permanent collection.

Until now Christine has only created paintings of two oaks, but more are in the pipeline and it is to be hoped that the genus she favors as a collector can also feature prominently in her art. For this article she kindly answered some questions via email:

How much of a botanist is there in a botanical artist? Have you trained as a botanist?

I’ve had no formal training in botany bar school science lessons, but I guess I was always fascinated by plants and growing things, so what I learned back then stuck with me. But it is important in my line of work to know at least the basics of plant structure, reproduction, etc. And it does help if you can read a scientific description of a rare plant and understand what the botanist is telling you about that species. It’s particularly important to get details right; like the angle of the leaves on the stem, or the number of stamens in a flower. These can all be diagnostic features – elements a botanist will use to identify the specimen, so you don’t want to get anything wrong! Just painting what you see is fine for a plant portrait, but for a scientific illustration – for Curtis’s Botanical Magazine for instance – it’s vital to ensure that everything is correct. If I’m unsure, or need to know what elements should be included, then I’ll get in touch with an expert in that particular field if I can, or if not, at least consult all my botany books before starting the illustration.

Q. guyavifolia
Quercus guyavifolia painted for Curtis's Botanical Magazine vol. 29: plate 734 (2012)

Given your interest in oaks as a collector, how is that you have not painted more oaks?

If only I had the time! I work mainly to commission so my clients tend to dictate what I’m working on. And now that I’m illustrating more for Curtis, I paint what is required by the editor, although Martyn Rix is very understanding of my passion for Quercus, and has commissioned me to paint some oaks. I’ve already done Q. guyavifolia and am currently working on Q. lamellosa and Q. rysophylla, all very exciting species.

Papaver rhoeas (Flanders Poppy), painted in 2014 to help promote Gardening Leave, a charity that helps injured service personnel through plants and gardening, for the 100th anniversary of the start of WW1.

What challenges do oaks pose for the artist, that are different to those presented by other plants?

I think that oaks, like other trees, are challenging first and foremost for their sheer size. Traditionally, botanical artists paint life-size, so obviously that would be impossible if I were to attempt to depict the whole tree. So then the challenge is to find an interesting branch or twig, which not only shows all the features that a botanist would expect to find on that particular plant, but also has artistic value. I try to imbue each plant I paint with "wall appeal," with varying success I might add. Oaks tend to be modest plants, with a few notable exceptions – such as Q. insignis with its showy great leaves – so I have to focus on other attractive aspects. For instance the new spring growth on most oaks is absolutely delightful, and some of the young shoots of Mexican oaks in particular are covered in the most exquisite red or carmine indumentum, so I try to make a "thing" of features like that. And of course acorns are delightful objects in themselves, and so diverse amongst the genus.

Q. monimotricha
Quercus monimotricha

Follow the links below under Related Content to view more of Christine's paintings and to read about Congrove Arboretum, which shares double-bill with Westonbirt Arboretum in our Oak Open Days taking place on July 6-7, 2014.

With thanks to Martyn Rix, Editor of Curtis's Botanical Magazine, for kind permission to reproduce the illustration of Quercus guyavifolia.

Amicus Botanicus website: www.amicusbotanicus.com
Christine Battle's website: www.christinebattle.co.uk