Monday, 2 February 2015

Plants in their Landscape - do botanical paintings have a narrative ?

This question has been going around in my mind since I started a small series of paintings that I have called 'Plants in their Landscape'.  At the moment there are three paintings and I am hoping over time to add more to the series.

The three paintings below all detail specific plants in their landscape, each landscape area depicted being totally different from the others

'Botanical Survey - Teesdale Assemblage Trio' Moorhouse NNR, Upper Teesdale
  © Sarah Morrish 2015

'Botanical Survey - Round-headed rampion' Old Winchester Hill NNR, Hampshire
© Sarah Morrish 2015

'Botanical Survey - Adder's tongue fern' Durlston NNR, Dorset
© Sarah Morrish 2015

Before we decide as to whether botanical paintings can have a narrative, perhaps we should have a look at the true definition of narrative art.

The Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Chicago defines narrative art as 'art that tells a story. It uses the power of the visual image to ignite imaginations, evoke emotions and capture universal cultural truths and aspirations. What distinguishes Narrative Art from other genres is its ability to narrate a story across diverse cultures, preserving it for future generations'.

Good old Wikipedia says 'narrative art is art that tells a story, either as a moment in an ongoing story or as a sequence of events unfolding over time. Some of the earliest evidence of human art suggests that people told stories with pictures'. 

'Static images in any artistic medium do not naturally lend themselves to telling stories as stories are told over time (diachronic) and pictures are seen all at once (synchronic)'. 

So my initial thoughts are:
  • Botanical paintings that follow a sequence of growth, such as a bulb expanding and shooting, then a flower emerging, do most definately tell a story.  This particularly applies to Denise Ramsay's series entitled 'A Brilliant Life'
  • The above point can also be applied to those artworks that depict the seasons in sequence.  Perhaps four separate pictures that show a hedgerow through Spring, Summer, Autumn & Winter. 
I can hear some of you saying that the latter may not be considered a botanical painting as it is a scenic style of composition.

In my book botanical subjects do not always have to be depicted with no backgrounds or habitats in the picture.  Nowadays botanical artists are looking for new ways to present their botanical style of painting, and I am seeing more and more botanical paintings that tell a clear narrative.

The other thing to consider is where would plants be without their sometimes specialised habitats, and on a wider scale their landscapes ?

As my paintings above developed and came to life on the paper, what was I looking to achieve and did I have a clear narrative in mind at the beginning ?
  • Conservation often plays a part in my paintings, because of my working background in ecology and conservation.  This may not be obvious straight away, but as a viewer I want to raise awareness and get people thinking and asking questions.  'I wonder where that is ?' 'I think I've been there' 'What is special about those plants ?'.  They may be thinking and asking these questions before they have even looked at an explanatory label.
  • At the planning stage I had decided that the landscapes would all be from National Nature Reserves in the UK, and ones that I had visited, and the botanical paintings would include rare and uncommon plants.
  • In the painting of 'Botanical Survey - Teesdale Assemblage Trio', I wanted to show the large open stretches of land found at Moorhouse NNR and hopefully for people to get the sense of the small size of the plants and their fragility within the landscape. The three plants are Mountain pansy, Spring gentian and Bird's eye primrose.  The Spring gentian is only found in a few other places, one being the Burren in Western Ireland.  These three plants are part of a group of 20 internationally important plants called the Teesdale Assemblage.  They are examples of the first vegetation that grew in that area 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, after the last ice age.
  • 'Botanical Survey - Round-headed rampion'.  I spent quite a bit of time in 2006 surveying for this plant, helping a friend with the fieldwork for his dissertation.  It is found in several places along the South Downs and at Old Winchester Hill it grows on the slopes of the Iron Age hill fort.  As far as I was concerned the hill fort had to play a part in the painting, seeing as that is the main location for this plant on the site.  As well as giving a sense of history with the hill fort depicted, I also wanted to show the growth progression of the plant alongside some of the other plants and grasses that grow alongside it.
  • The field sketches for 'Botanical Survey - Adder's tongue fern' were completed in 2004, so this painting has been waiting a while to come to life !  The flower rich meadows set just back from the coast at Durlston NNR are full of all different plants and flowers and in the landscape for this picture I wanted to show the summer freshness of the green meadows and surrounding vegetation, alongside the green of this unusual fern.

So, I am not stating that all paintings should have a narrative, but hopefully I have raised your awareness of how your botanical paintings can tell a story.

These paintings are being submitted with two others for the Society of Botanical Artists Exhibition in April.  The theme of the exhibition is 'In Pursuit of Plants', hence why I have added 'botanical survey' to the title of each  There is no guarantee that they will be accepted but I am keeping my fingers crossed !

Special thanks must go to David Glaves, an Ecologist and fabulous photographer, who supplied the photo reference for the Moorhouse NNR landscape.  At the time of visiting the reserve in 2007 I was too busy sketching the plants and taking photos of them, so I forgot the landscape !

Please remember that if you are trying to source reference material online, do contact the photographer if you are wishing to use their image for any purpose.

Happy Painting !


  1. I think placing the plants in their context helps explain both plant and landscape (2+2=6 model!). The trick is getting the right balance between the two.

    1. I definately agree Katherine. Still not sure I have achieved it fully with these 3 pieces. Of course there is always a 3rd option of including the direct habitat too alongside the plant and landscape.

  2. Hello,

    just found your blog via twitter. Great blog and wonderful botanical paintings. I definitly will explore your work more in detail.


    1. Thank you Thomas, I'm glad you enjoy the blog. It is fun to have a mix of art and natural history.


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