Say it with flowers
The plant-packed Overberg attracts a bunch of talented botanical artists, writes Judy Bryant.
Overberg, Western Cape, South Africa
South African Country Life
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.”
So says renowned botanical artist Vicki Thomas, chatting to me over tea and rusks. She’s wearing a floral pink and green flower top and we are in her light-filled studio just metres from the glorious Harold Porter National Botanical Garden in Betty’s Bay. Originally a nature reserve called Shangri-la, or paradise, that garden’s renowned as the floral heart of the Cape fynbos region.
Vicki’s atelier was my first stop on a trip to meet several outstanding floral artists who’ve made the Overberg their home.
“The first time I came to the Overberg, from England, I was only 22 and found it too much – too wild and rugged,” Vicki told me. “The fynbos colours looked too khaki.
“The second time I came here, 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 scientific point of view.”
Before meeting Vicki, I strolled through the Harold Porter garden, wanting to find out what attracts botanical artists to this area. I discovered a concentration of exquisite proteas, reeds, bulbs and more set among meandering nature trails and tinkling streams. Clearly this array of intriguing plants just calls out to be painted.
When Vicki showed me examples of her work, I realised how a talented artist reveals small details like light falling on a leaf, or subtle colour graduations. Botanical art makes you look at plants in a completely 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 with an entire botanical art gallery named after her in Kew Gardens.
“I was introduced to botanical art by my mother-in-law Margaret Thomas, a renowned plant propagator at Kirstenbosch in Cape Town,” explained Vicki. “She asked me to create a small illustration for a Botanical Society first prize award.”
Showing me a watercolour dated 1987, with a delicate pink and white flower, she said: “I was always drawing but had never painted flowers before. While I did this illustration, the hairs on my arms stood up. It was a turning point in my mind, and from then botanical art has been 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 showed me around her own garden and it was clear she doesn’t have to look far for inspiration – it has over 1000 species, including extremely rare memetes specimens. Her 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 turned onto a dirt track on the outskirts of Betty’s Bay, and drove through copious fynbos to a blue-shuttered farmhouse hugging the coast. I was in search of Lynda de Wet, originally a potter.
With her ridgeback dog Bella leading the way, we entered her airy studio. Natural treasures like dried seed pods and guinea fowl feathers complemented framed botanical watercolours; the spectacular setting ensures she can work at her desk while watching waves break on the rocks.
Lynda explained how, nearly 20 years ago, she began a four-year project recording Sandveld fynbos on the Cape’s West Coast. She produced up to seven A3-size watercolours daily, 960 works in all.
“I’d studied at UCT’s Michaelis and the Ruth Prowse School of Art, yet it was a learning curve ‒ I was just somebody painting flowers. But I joined the Botanical Artists Association of Southern Africa (BAASA) and when I got 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.”
Strolling back outdoors, Lynda showed me her beautifully tended vegetable garden. As we walked further I was struck by the rich variety of fynbos shrubs.
“We had a terrifying experience when a fire raged right down to the beach several years ago,” she told me. “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 was Hermanus, where artist Margaret de Villiers, wearing a striking blue kaftan, welcomed me warmly. Picture windows revealed views of restios and the sea, and she told me the handcrafted pendant light over the dining table was inspired by a branch of kelp seaweed.
The house had 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 chuckled. 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. Margaret is particularly well-known for her depictions of ericas ‒ she’s produced 55 such works.
Her collection area spans Rooi Els to Bredasdorp. Like the other artists, she said how grateful she was to farmers and others who supply her with floral specimens.
“These are carefully kept ‘fresh’ 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 wonderful joy ride for me. Now I like to draw peoples’ attention to the many different ‘simple’ plants that grow in the fynbos,” she said, presenting me with a lovely gift of her own printed botanical cards.
Work created by Vicki, Lynda and Margaret ‒ and many other super-talented Southern Africa botanical artists – should shortly get greater recognition.
“May 18 is World Botanical Art Day,” explains Gillian Condy, chairperson of the BAASA Gauteng branch. Gillian is curating an exhibition of over 80 Southern African botanical artists at Everard Read Gallery in Johannesburg, from 18 May to 9 June.
“Our showcase is part of the first ever 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 own 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, Velthemia 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,” said Gillian. “The public will now be able to see that many of our top artists stand on a par with the best that overseas countries can offer.”
First published in SA Country Life May 2018
Images Judy Bryant and supplied