Mary Comber Miles’ work has been exhibited in individual and group shows in Britain, the United States and throughout Canada. Her work is regularly displayed at botanical gardens throughout North America and appears in many important public and private collections of botanical art.
Mary has kindly sent me the following piece, published in the VanDusen Botanical Garden Bulletin, March 1993 — “which I still stand by,” she says.
Botanical Illustration, An Art and a Science
The first and most important point to establish is a distinction between floral painting and drawing for pleasure, and drawing and painting for scientific purposes. When botanical painting is used for the accurate identification of a plant, the subject rendered with both scientific accuracy and artistic ability neither losing to the other, it can pass the division from scientific botanical drawing to an art on its own.
William Blunt, in his classic book The Art of Botanical Illustration, expresses aptly this sentiment: “The greatest flower painters have been those who found beauty in truth, understanding plants scientifically, but who have yet seen and described them with the eye and the hand of the artist.”
Nearly two thousand years ago the first known botanical drawings, highly naturalistic, were executed for people seeking herbal recognition, then a necessity for survival. A degeneration took place, largely due to inaccurate copying and, for many years, useless stylized illustrations appeared as an excuse for text decoration.
The great age of botanical illustration followed from around 1550 on to 1900 and then a partial gap appeared, which now seems t have been filled with a renaissance of fine artists. Recently, photography has been used extensively in scientific publications. An inability to get every identifying detail into focus in the same photo has led many botanists to supplement photography with line drawings or to again use full botanical paintings and drawings.
Most of us interested in botany-related art and recent trends in home decoration will have noticed an abundance of certain classical botanical publications. Pierre-Joseph Redouté’s Roses has been among the most potpular.
My own heroes of the aforementioned “Great Age” were the two Dutch Bauer brothers, Ferdinand and Francis, of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Their illustrations, finely detailed and with incredible depth, artistic merit, and scientific accuracy, I feel have rarely, if ever, been equaled. Ferdinand, the roving brother, accompanied early explorers on world expeditions, and Francis Bauer was, for 50 years, established by Joseph Banks as artist to Kew Gardens. The colossal amount of superb work they both achieved is testimony to their commitment. In the Victorian era Walter Fitch was the only figure whose stature could compare with his great predecessors.
As I write, a collection of treasures from the Royal Horticultural Society’s Lindley Library is being prepared for exhibition at the Kew Gardens Gallery. This Gallery has fairly recently been opened for the sole purpose of showing flower and garden-related art.
I’m often asked what I consider to be the requirements for anyone wishing seriously to go into this field. Basic botany at university level is very important (the only way this can be sidestepped is to work, literally, beside a botanist who will explain his requirements in fine detail). Several years of art school in drawing and painting, modeling and composition are highly desirable if one isn’t to end up with flat, lifeless drawings or paintings.
To a large extent, a draftsman’s approach to the use of watercolour has been the obvious answer to approximately five centuries of what we today recognize as scientifically descriptive botanical painting. This technique proved practical for the slow build-up of colour on the readily available and permanent surface of vellum (the treated and stretched skin of calves).
Similar methods are used today on a variety of fine papers with a vellum-like finish, allowing for even finer work. Freer, untouched watercolour paintings on textured watercolour paper rarely give the realism and detail that is possible with the slower build-up of colour, the method favoured by most of the leading botanical artists today. (A magnifying lens if of great assistance in understanding the structure of plants and enables one to give a truer representation; and a real love of one’s subject matter and understanding of the plant in all its moods is necessary if there is to be nothing lacking in the portrait.)
It is not difficult to realize how naturally I came to spending my life pursuing botanical art, with a heritage of exposure to botany and horticulture through my late grandfather, James Comber, V.M.H. and father, Harold Comber, A.L.S., plant collector, botanist and horticulturalist, and their friends. My mother had taught drawing and design and, on housebound days, out came watercolours, pencils and paper and gently guided sessions of drawing and painting ensued.
As his only daughter and youngest child I was often companion to father when he selected material for frequent Royal Horticultural Society Chelsea Shows, or for photography. Accompanying him to shows, I was privy to discussions on the new horticultural discoveries and award-winning plants. Visits to many of England’s finest plant collections and gardens in the company of their owners, and father and grandfather, were also part of my childhood.
With this sensitive “priming”, I accepted a scholarship to the Cambridge School of Art, which enabled me to study drawing and painting, never losing sight of my goal of becoming a botanical artist. Father again stepped in and introduced me to the artists working t Kew. Had he not emigrated to the West Coast in 1952 I would have applied for lmore work there instead of following him to North America, a move which I have never regretted.
For the last fifteen years I have given annual exhibitions of my year’s work in the gallery of the Floral Hall at VanDusen Botanical Gardens. For these exhibitions I usually include a collection of paintings done in situ in another part of the world; perhaps a collection of wildflowers from an area visited or a group of plants from a special collection not readily available in Vancouver. I also endeavour to portray some of VanDusen’s finest plants and other exceptional plants grown in this area. Notes are included, which I trust will provoke the interest of visitors.
Varous VanDusen Botanical Garden Association publications, and I have a bank of colour transparencies for use in future publications.