When Two Rivers Press suggested that I should write a book in their Botanical Portfolios series, following on from Julia Trickey’s beautiful Botanical Artistry, I was excited and flattered but rather nervous. My two previous books were about the history and folklore of plants and involved a great deal of very enjoyable research. But this book was more personal, more exposing, with no research to hide behind. But it was an opportunity to explain what inspires me, and to show some of my working practice.
I wondered how best to describe my work. Looking back over my long career, it became obvious that one driving principle was my passion for ALL things natural, how they work and how they relate to one another. Although my main interest is in plants, I am very aware that they do not exist in isolation, but are part of a bigger story.
At school in the 1950s there was always a class Nature Table. It inspired our interest in nature in a way that glossy TV natural history programmes just can’t do, and laid down foundations for a lifelong interest in the natural world. That wiggly mark on a leaf was caused by a tiny caterpillar eating a tunnel between the layers of the leaf. That sculptural, hard, brown pupa case contained a formless goo that used to be a caterpillar and would soon become a butterfly. Those attractive lines on the petals of a wild Geranium were there to guide insects to find nectar and at the same time pollinate the flower. Marvellous!
Living in a small country town, I and my friends spent our time, as children did in those days, playing in the fields or walking unaccompanied to school. We became familiar with wild plants, even using them in our games. I was a major contributor to the class Nature Table and my painting still draws on that fascination with all things natural and the connections between them.
Forced at school to choose between arts and sciences, I opted for the arts route but never lost my interest in the science of nature too. I ended up as both a professional botanical artist and illustrator – there is a big difference between the two, but that is a subject for another time! Isolated plants can make a striking portrait and, of course, are essential in illustrations intended to assist identification. But in reality plants are not perfect; they have dead leaves and caterpillar holes. They grow in habitats with other species around them. They start off as fragile seedlings and may end up as skeletons. Insects come to drink their nectar or lay eggs on them. I enjoy showing all this in my ‘art’ work, telling more of their story.
Butterflies, beetles and moths sometimes appear in my exhibition paintings too, and not always to cover an accidental paint spot! Even if animals themselves do not appear, I like to include evidence of their activity, such as galls, insect damage, empty egg-shells or fallen feathers. Many of these have the advantage that, on the whole, they don’t change colour, or wilt.
Like many botanical painters, I had included little tufts of moss or lichen when I found them growing on the twigs I was painting. Once I started studying them I became totally hooked, and have been painting them as subjects in their own right ever since. Although by no means an expert, I cannot resist pointing out these normally unregarded organisms to everyone. I just love that moment when, having handed someone a lichen-encrusted twig and shown them how to use a hand-lens, I hear them gasp in astonished admiration!
We are surrounded by plants and have always depended on them. The history of our interaction with them is endlessly absorbing to me and ranks alongside the aesthetic and scientific aspects of my work. I like to remind people of bluebell woods, picking blackberries, harvesting from the garden. As a society we are losing touch with nature and the seasons, and that alarms me. Our long traditions, the folklore we have woven around plants, which ones we have used as simple remedies – all this too is part of the story.
As I near the end of my painting career, writing this book has been a useful review, reminding me of what I have done and what more I would still like to do. I hope The Whole Story will transform people’s perspective and inspire them to look beyond the flowers to the wider story.
Christina Hart Davies is well known for her precise and accurate botanical watercolours, which feature in prestigious collections worldwide and have won many awards including several RHS Gold medals. She has illustrated many books and field guides, most notably The Collins Wild Flower Guide. In 2016 Two Rivers Press published Christina’s own book A Wild Plant Year on the history, folklore and uses of Britain’s wild plants. The Whole Story: Painting more than just the flowers is her latest book and is available to order now. Christina graduated in Typography from Reading University. Her design background is invaluable in her illustration work and influences the composition of her exhibition paintings. She is an experienced and popular tutor and enjoys encouraging people to find their own style in which to celebrate plants of all kinds.