Stella Ross-Craig - Drawings of British Plants

28 October, 2001 - 10 March 2002 

Stella Ross-Craig

This exhibition presented the then ninety-five year old Stella Ross-Craig's masterly drawings of British plants (1948-73) for the first time. The tradition of illustrating Britain's native plants goes back to William Turner in the sixteenth century. In his New Herball, Turner was reduced to using woodcut illustrations that had already been used in Fuchs' Herbal. The use of illustrations drawn from real specimens dates from Otto Brunfels in Germany (c. 1530), but in Britain a systematic attempt to illustrate all native plants did not occur until Smith and Sowerby's English Botany of 1790-1814. This work includes no less than 2592 plates, representing not only flowering plants but bryophytes, lichens and algae. The plates were drawn by James Sowerby, and reproduced as engravings that were hand-coloured by members of his family. During the first half of the nineteenth century, stimulated by the work of J.E. Smith, an intensive study of the British flora took place, systematised and popularised in the works of W.J. Hooker, G.A.W. Arnott and C.C. Babington. No further attempt at systematic illustration, however, was tried until the second edition of George Bentham's Handbook of the British Flora of 1865, illustrated with exquisite and highly compressed wood engravings after drawings by Walter Hood Fitch. In 1880 these wood engravings, abstracted from their context and supplemented with illustrations by W.G. Smith, were published as a separate volume, the Illustrations of the British Flora. These Illustrations were enormously popular and reprinted in numerous editions. In 1930 they were supplemented by a volume of detailed drawings of critical and introduced species by Florence Strudwick entitled Further Illustrations of British Plants, with a text by Roger Butcher.

In the meanwhile two lavish attempts at more detailed Floras of Britain had been made, the first successfully - a third edition of Smith and Sowerby's English Botany written by Boswell Syme, also illustrated by hand-coloured engravings. The Cambridge British Flora by C.E. Moss was launched in 1914, illustrated by E.W. Hunnybun, but was abandoned in 1920 after only two hefty volumes and 397 illustrations. Both of these works, however, were designed for professional botanists, wealthy amateurs, or libraries and were definitely outwith the pocket of the amateur botanist.

The Drawings of British Plants were for a new set of illustrations of British plants available to the keen amateur of limited means, but exacting standards. Her work is still the one to which professional botanists turn to check identifications of British plants and S R-C can, with justifiable pride, recount that no fewer than five Directors of Kew, as students, were 'brought up' on the work.

The project was supported by Sir Edward Salisbury, Director of Kew, and the initial result was a slim volume, which appeared in 1948, containing 44 plates by S R-C of unsurpassed quality. The plates were designed as aids to identification and, since the days of hand-colouring were over, they were printed on good quality paper, so that keen amateurs could colour the plates for themselves. In the Introduction S R-C, with characteristic understatement, wrote that 'a work of this nature...must inevitably take several years to complete' and that it would 'eventually comprise some 1,500 to 1,800 plates'. In fact it was to be 25 years, 30 more parts, and 1306 plates later that the enormous undertaking was completed (omitting the families Gramineae and Cyperaceae of which illustrated monographs had been produced in the meanwhile). The work was also affordable, the first part costing 6 shillings (30p, but by 1971 selling for 50p!) and the last £2, so that the whole work could be bought in its original parts for £26.20 in 1973. This, however, had risen to £120 when it was reissued in eight hardback volumes in 1979.

The Drawings of British Plants represents a magnificent work of scientific investigation and recording, pursued with dedication over a period of a quarter of a century, an undertaking approached with an astonishing humility. It is characteristic of S R-C that she should end the Introduction to the first part of the work with the following quotation from James Stephens' The Crock of Gold (1912):

"Finality is death; perfection is finality; nothing is perfect - there are lumps in it."

Looking at these wonderful drawings, even with the most critical of eyes, it has to be said that the 'lumps' are remarkably well hidden.

Stella Ross-Craig was born in Aldershot in 1906 of Scottish parents, and during her childhood in Kent and Hampshire developed an early interest in botany. At the Thanet Art Schools S R-C studied the usual art college subjects of the time - such as life drawing, printmaking and photography, supplemented by evening botanical studies. The latter she continued by attending botany classes at Chelsea Polytechnic with her future husband, the botanist J.R. Sealy.

Her career as a botanical artist started in 1929, working both for the Royal Horticultural Society and the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew. For the former she worked on the Botanical Magazine, illustrated by colour plates (at this time still reproduced as hand-coloured lithographs), supplemented by text figures showing floral dissections in black and white. The journal was edited by Otto Stapf, and the main artist was Lilian Snelling, with S R-C contributing numerous watercolours and even more black and white figures. The earliest of these watercolours were lithographed by Snelling, but after 1948 were reproduced by colour printing. For Kew S R-C worked on another serial publication, Hooker's Icones Plantarum, which included descriptions and illustrations of new and interesting plants from the Kew herbarium. These plates were in black and white, with the floral dissections incorporated into the plate. It was Charles Hubbard, an expert on grasses in the Kew herbarium, who suggested that S R-C embark upon a series of drawings of all the British plants in a style similar to that of the Icones, with life size habits and copious magnified details to aid precise identification.

In addition to these massive and long-running projects, S R-C also found time to make numerous watercolour paintings of plants (for example orchids and bananas) for the Kew collection, and to contribute to several major monographs. These included F.C. Stern's A Study of the Genus Paeonia (text figures), A. Grove's A Supplement to Elwes' Monograph of Lilium (2 colour plates and text figures), J.R. Sealy's A Revision of the Genus Camellia (colour frontispiece) and G.H. Johnstone's Asiatic Magnolias in Cultivation (colour frontispiece). A little-known aspect of S R-C's work is as a taxonomist, and in this capacity she produced and illustrated a revision of the genus Sphaeranthus (Compositae) which formed a single part of Hooker's Icones in 1954.

In total S R-C has illustrated more than 3000 species of flowering plant, and in December 1999 was awarded the Kew Award 'for Outstanding Service to the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew'.

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