Siân Sharp – Artist and Illustrator

Sketching at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

23-11-12: The kind people at Kew allowed me in to draw the Herbarium and the Economic Botany Collection, and what a privilege it was. Thank you to Chris Mills, Mark Nesbitt and Lorna Cahill for being so welcoming and accommodating.

The front of the building looks something like this.

The entrance to the modern part of the Herbarium, I like its elegant flowing shape and natural wooden cladding — seems perfect for Kew, to me — but I got the impression that some people who work there aren’t so keen. A botanist came up to me while I was drawing and implored me to draw the older bit of the building because it’s much prettier! But I feel when I’m drawing that my picture should be able to describe the place to someone (a child?) who’s never been there, and this is the entrance I went in, so this is what I have to describe.

This is the library where members of the public may go and research.  I was delighted that one of the librarians said “You’ve really captured the spirit of the place,” and she liked the trees through the narrow windows.  My teacher chuckled at me for doggedly drawing all those books.

Now here are some scenes from the Economic Botany Collection. This is an archive/museum (archive is documents and museum is objects, I think?) where they keep items that derive from organic material.  Nowadays, because so many ordinary objects are made of plastic or fuelled by petrol, oil is the most valuable material in the world.  But in the nineteenth century, plants were the thing, as coal was the main fuel and common materials were paper, wood or wicker.  So the EBC was a showcase of all the wonderful things human ingenuity can do with plants.  Today it’s a reference collection which you can view by appointment, not all on permanent public display, so everything isn’t beautifully displayed in cases all the time.  Above is an array of raffia hats and baskets… dried flower arrangements… and some archivist’s gloves.

The collection is kept in rolling stacks.  I should probably have been more careful with the lines of this… considered straight ruled lines would go better with the ordered subject.  But I was in a hurry because I wanted to capture as much information as possible in the time I was there.

Some splendidly kitsch birds made out of pine cones… lots of fans were on display, as some conservation students from Camberwell (?) were there that day, being invited to pick an object to restore… that’s a tiny glimpse of their teacher and the keeper of the collection Mark Nesbitt in conference.

This mighty cloud-like thing is a balsam bog, which thrilled Victorian travellers to the Falklands because it was a plant that looked like a sheep.  It is in fact related to the carrot.

Archivist Lorna Cahill putting away a lot of maps.  She also showed me something she’d got out for a researcher, a letter from ‘Chas’ Darwin on the Beagle!  That was far too precious and delicate for me to touch, photo or draw, but I did feel privileged to peer at it.  We picked out the line, “At the moment I am red hot with spiders.”

Lorna suggested I draw a great big archive space with several levels and wrought-iron spiral staircases. First I tried to do a line study but the perspective of the place baffled me. Then I tried to forget doing an exact study of the architecture of the space and do a tonal drawing – but as the light was fading and botanists were switching their own desk lamps on and off, the tonal values defeated me too. So it’s a magnificent space and subject to draw, but unfortunately too advanced for me.
It was the end of the day and people were going home, so as my teacher looked through my drawings he said, ‘weren’t there ANY people about?’ I think I need to include some human figures to make these pictures come to life a bit, show the Herbarium as the working environment it really is!

I also had the chance, another day when I did a recce, to visit Kew Gardens – I didn’t actually do many proper drawings, just doodly notes to myself (a peacock sitting on a bench, funny things I heard children say). But here is a scene I saw near the Palm House.

As with the Natural History Museum, I felt that I’d only really scratched the surface of this place. There were still several areas (for example the conservation studio, the labs) which I would have loved to draw. Unfortunately the train fare to Kew was so expensive that I actually couldn’t afford a second expedition before my project was due. But I am very grateful that I got to go once, and had this opportunity to explore a part of Kew that many members of the public don’t see.

This entry was published on January 5, 2013 at 7:00 pm. It’s filed under MA Sketching Project, Sketchbook and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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