The plant-packed Overberg attracts a bunch of talented botanical artists, writes JUDY BRYANT.
Images by Judy Bryant and supplied.
“The joy of looking at and drawing plants helps you to connect so beautifully with the natural, real world. I would recommend that everyone does it. And if you can write your name, you can draw.”
Renowned botanical artist Vicki Thomas chats to me over tea and rusks. She’s wearing a pink and green floral top and we are in her light-filled studio just metres from the Harold Porter National Botanical Garden in Betty’s Bay. Originally a nature reserve called Shangri-La, that garden’s renowned as the floral heart of the Cape fynbos region.
Vicki’s atelier is my first stop on a trip to meet several outstanding floral artists who’ve made the Overberg their home. “The first time I came out to the Overberg from England I was only 22 and found it too much – too wild and rugged,” Vicki tells me. “The fynbos colours looked too khaki.
“The second time I visited, I started to see the incredible diversity and then I began to fall in love with it all. You’re looking at the whole story of life and how different organisms respond. It’s so stimulating from an artistic and a scientific point of view.”
Before meeting Vicki, I had strolled through the Harold Porter garden, wanting to find out what attracted botanical artists to this area.
I discovered a concentration of exquisite proteas, reeds, bulbs and more set among meandering nature trails and streams.
Clearly, this array of intriguing plants just calls out to be painted. When Vicki shows me examples of her work, I realise how a talented artist reveals small details, like light falling on a leaf, or subtle colour gradations. Botanical art makes you look at plants in a new way.
No wonder that fans of South African floral paintings range from HRH Prince Charles to Dr Shirley Sherwood, the British writer, botanist and philanthropist, who has a botanical art gallery at Kew Gardens named after her.
“I was introduced to botanical art by my mother-in-law Margaret Thomas, a renowned plant propagator at Kirstenbosch in Cape Town,” explains Vicki. “She asked me to create a small illustration for a Botanical Society first prize.”
Showing me a watercolour dated 1987, of a delicate pink and white flower, Vicki says, “I was always drawing but had never painted flowers before. As I did this illustration, the hairs on my arms stood up. It was a turning point, and from then botanical art was always an an important part of my life.”
That illustration led to top botanist Ernst van Jaarsveld approaching Vicki to produce plectranthus paintings for his revision of the genus. Ernst has even named a plant he discovered after her – Bulbine thomasiae.
Vicki shows me around her own garden and it’s clear she doesn’t have to look far for inspiration – in it there are more than 1 000 species, including extremely rare memetes specimens. Vicki’s husband Rob grows these threatened plants, which occur high in the Overberg mountains, by grafting them onto hardy root stock so they can survive the different conditions in lower-lying areas.
For my next appointment, I turn onto a dirt track on the outskirts of Betty’s Bay, and drive through abundant fynbos to a blue-shuttered farmhouse hugging the coast. I am in search of Lynda de Wet, originally a potter.
With her ridgeback Bella leading the way, we enter her airy studio. Natural treasures like dried seed pods and Guinea Fowl feathers complement framed botanical watercolours; the spectacular setting ensures she can work at her desk while watching waves break on the rocks.
Lynda explains how, almost 20 years ago, she began a four-year project recording Sandveld fynbos on the Cape West Coast. She produced up to seven A3-size watercolours daily, 960 works in all.
“In Cape Town I’d studied at the Michaelis School of Fine Art and the Ruth Prowse School of Art, but it was a learning curve – I was just somebody painting flowers. Then I joined the Botanical Artists Association of Southern Africa [BAASA] and, when I received a bronze medal at the Kirstenbosch Biennale in 2006,
I was encouraged to keep going.” Two years later, receiving a gold medal for a painting bought for the Brenthurst Library “was a huge lift for my morale and status as an artist”.Back outdoors, Lynda shows me her beautifully tended vegetable garden. As we walk further I am struck by the rich variety of fynbos. “We had a terrifying experience when a fire raged right down to the beach several years ago,” she says. “We huddled down, covered with a wet sheet, barely able to breathe. Luckily the house was spared. The upside was that some amazing fynbos appeared afterwards.”
My next stop is Hermanus, where artist Margaret de Villiers, wearing a striking blue kaftan, welcomes me warmly. Picture windows reveal views of restios and the sea, and she tells me that the handcrafted pendant light over the dining table was inspired by a branch of kelp.
The house belonged to Margaret’s late father, Judge Marius Diemont, who loved his Cape Town indigenous garden and was a supporter of the arts. “While listening to witnesses in court, he’d sketch revealing caricatures instead of taking notes,” Margaret says with a chuckle. Her grandmother was well-known artist Rose Diemont, and now Margaret, who worked as a country newspaper correspondent, has her own studio here.
Margaret holds a fine art diploma from Rhodes University, but didn’t paint seriously until a decade ago. She’s clearly a botanical natural – within five years she’d won a gold medal at the 2013 Kirstenbosch Biennale, and Best Painting On Show at the Royal Horticultural Society in London. She is particularly well-known for her depictions of ericas, and has produced 55 such works.
Her collection area spans from Rooi Els to Bredasdorp and, like the other artists, she says how grateful she is to farmers and others who supply her with floral specimens. “These are carefully kept in water, covered with plastic, in an old fridge. Depending on the time of year and the amount of natural light,
I spend six to eight hours daily in my studio.”
A painting takes up to two months to complete. Margaret is well-known for painting the main image, and including smaller details of dissected portions of the plant underneath. A friend, Dr Pat Miller, skilfully dissects the plants and photographs them for Margaret to have a selection of botanical details to paint.
“It has been a real joyride for me. Now I like to draw attention to the many ‘simple’ plants that grow in the fynbos,” she says, presenting me with a lovely gift of her own printed botanical cards.
Works created by Vicki, Lynda and Margaret – and many other super-talented botanical artists from Southern Africa – should shortly find greater recognition.
“May 18 is World Botanical Art Day,” explains Gillian Condy, chairperson of the BAASA Gauteng branch. Gillian is curating an exhibition of more than 80 Southern African botanical artists at Everard Read Gallery in Johannesburg, from 18 May to 9 June.
“Our showcase is part of the first Botanical Art Worldwide Exhibition. The overall theme is ‘linking plants and people through botanical
art’, and artists from 24 countries (across six continents) are taking part in simultaneous exhibitions in their countries.”
Vicki has created three paintings – a red-bulbed Haemanthus coccineus, a lovely pink Protea aristata and the very rare marsh rose (Orothamnus zeyheri). Lynda’s illustrated a green reed Elegia capensis, Elegia persistens, Veltheimia capensis and Babiana ringens.Margaret painted a striking Aloe lineata,
studies of the bushy shrub Leucadendron tinctum, the creamy-yellow flowers and leathery-leaved Hermas villosa and Othonna quinquedentata, commonly known as baboon cabbage.
“The invitation to participate in this worldwide collaboration recognises the fact that we have incredible talent in this country,” says Gillian. “The public will now be able to see that many of our top artists stand on par with the best that overseas countries can offer.”