Talented artist and inspirational teacher receives New Year Honour

A talented artist and inspirational teacher who has travelled the world to extend the public outreach of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) receives an MBE in the New Year Honours List. Jacqui Pestell has received formal recognition for Services to Botanical Art Education in Scotland.

Director of Botanical Illustration since 2007, Jacqui Pestell has dedicated almost two decades to developing the reputation of RBGE as a world-class leader in the discipline of and training of botanical art.

Originally trained at Trent Polytechnic and Goldsmiths in London, majoring in Textile & Fashion, then Education of Art & Design, she worked as a freelance textile designer for two years, before qualifying as a teacher. Working in schools in London, she developed her reputation as a respected freelance illustrator, artist and mural painter.

An early inspiration for her was a visiting exhibition to Edinburgh: “I first saw a brilliant exhibition, at the Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh, of Shirley Sherwood's first collection of plant drawings. Frankly it blew my mind, and I was so inspired”, she commented.

“The next year I found myself working with children at the Botanics, painting a big forest scene with 'well observed' flowering plants from the Garden - it's still there under a layer of board in the Education department's Forest Room.”

Since her initial appointment as Artist in Residence at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh in 1997, she has continued to develop her status as a first class teacher and botanical artist. International acclaim came initially in 1999 when she represented RBGE as artist at the Kunming International Garden Exposition, China in 1999, exhibiting in both Beijing and the UK. At the same time raising children with her husband Donald, she continued her involvement with botanical painting and teaching at RBGE, elsewhere in Edinburgh and also carrying out commissions for private individuals.

Jacqui has been instrumental in developing the botanical art education courses and facilities at the Garden and has been at the centre of initiatives to widen the net of its capacity and reputation for teaching botanical art at home and abroad. She has developed the highly successful RBGE Diploma in Botanical Illustration, now in its ninth year of producing medal-winning graduates - and even some new tutors. The Graduate shows remain one of her highpoints in the calendar.

She coordinated artistry for the sell-out Plants from the Woods and Forests of Chile book and exhibition. This included leading botanical illustration workshops in Chile and building relationships with Chilean botanical institutes.

In 2015 she travelled to Nepal with five other artists as part of the 200 year Nepal-UK celebration, teaching and demonstrating in Kathmandu and collecting in the Himalayas. Fortuitously chancing upon the open air manufacture of ‘Daphne’ paper while trekking, afforded an opportunity to further explore her interest in natural lightweight papers as a medium for watercolour expression of delicacy and translucency in botanical subjects. This led to the Flora of Nepal Exhibition at the Garden’s John Hope Gateway visitor centre.

Since arriving at RBGE Jacqui has developed a deep appreciation of the opportunities to be afforded from working with the Living and Preserved Collections and in collaborating with colleagues in the Science and Horticulture Divisions. And, there have been many highlights along the way, including the much-anticipated arrival of a rather famous and popular subject  last year, as she explained: “The Amorphophallus Titanum (Titan Arum) flowering was a time of considerable excitement at RBGE. The inflorescence of the species being the largest in the world, and flowering being so rare and unpredictable, and also so short-lived and so strong-smelling, that the event wherever it occurs becomes one of international significance.

“RBGE attracted around 10,000 visitors over the three day period and the idea to paint the inflorescence at its prime, and full-scale, thus brought many challenges, not least its size. It required three artists – I was joined by Isik Guner and Sharon Tingey – to paint this 2.67m high specimen in the conditions of the Glasshouses. We were surrounded by the scent of putrefaction and the visitor stream from morning to night over the three days before collapse of the central spadix occurred. Contrasting the soft yellow towering spadix was the blood red skirt of the spathe top surface, with its fuzzy yellow deeply pleated underside.

“It required a special relationship between the artists to paint a common subject as one piece of art. It was the first time such an integrated collaborative piece of art had been attempted by the artists and represents - for all of the artists - a unique moment and considerable satisfaction.”

Paying tribute to Jacqui’s dedication, RBGE Regius Keeper Simon Milne MBE commented: “Jacqui’s inspiration, leadership and skill make an enormous contribution to maintaining this country’s astonishing standard of botanical art. As a practitioner she is exceptional and her remarkable drive to encourage and train the next generation of botanical artists will ensure that this scientifically important and aesthetically valuable art form will thrive”.

As to the future of botanical art at RBGE and beyond, Jacqui concluded: “Having worked on the Amorphophallus collaboration with Isik and Sharon - turning it into a performance with so many people watching And, capturing the piece after 13 hours’ sweat and adrenalin, much laughter and such a sense of achievement, It is funny to think that it will be shown in the next Shirley Sherwood exhibition in London. Perhaps it will inspire some new folk to take up plant painting?”


The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh is a charity (registration number SC007983)