One thousand years of botanical art was displayed in the Ashmolean's leading exhibition of 2005, providing the unique opportunity to compare illustrations by contemporary artists alongside remarkable botanical art of the past. Chosen by Dr. Shirley Sherwood from her acclaimed collection of botanical painting by artists worldwide, and from the rich historical treasures of Oxford's libraries and museums, such as the Flora Graeca (1806-1840) by Ferdinand Bauer, one of Oxford's greatest treasures, these inspiring plant portraits stand at the interface between art and science.
The oldest exhibit is a drawing of a thistle made by a monk from the late 11th century and the most recent painting, by Angela Mirro, is of a rare Peruvian slipper orchid discovered in 2002. By contrasting the old with the new throughout the show, it becomes apparent that the criteria for botanical illustration have not changed throughout the centuries. The scientific quality found within illustrations from the 17th century onwards originates from detailed and accurate observations, which have remained essential to the representation of plants and their anatomy today. From the exotic to the familiar, past and present, direct comparisons will be made between plants, flowers, fruits and vegetables. Modern studies of vegetables, such as Suzanne Blaxill's Beetroot and Brigid Edwards' Onions, are contrasted with woodcuts of cabbages from 16th century herbals. Meticulously painted flowers bordering illuminated manuscripts, exemplified by the 15th century Flemish Book of Hours, are matched to the delicate violets and roses painted by contemporary artists Paul Jones, Regine Hagedorna and Helga Hislip. Interest in the art of botany has undergone a major revival in recent decades. A golden age of botanical art flourished at the end of the 18th century, but now high profile contemporary artists like Margaret Mee and Rory McEwan (1932-82) have raised the genre to a highly regarded and popular subject, which has inspired artists and viewers worldwide and has led to a new golden age today.