The Flowers of Kew: 350 Years of Flower Paintings from the Royal Botanic Gardens

Richard Mabey, Author Atheneum Books $35 (208p) ISBN 978-0-689-12016-9
Far more than the sum of its subtitle, this book recounts the lively history of the devoted botanical eccentrics associated with the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew--from Sir John Hill, mountebank and illustrator of exotic flora, to Joseph Hooker, who endured avalanches, leeches and anti-British riots in order to track down and record 28 species of rhododendrons in the Himalayas. With obvious affection and knowing irony, Mabey ( The Unofficial Countryside ) narrates the glory days (1750-1850) of botanical illustration, when plant-collecting expeditions to the Pacific isles lasted two and a half years and ``tens of thousands'' gathered at Kew to watch the 2 p.m. blooming of Victoria amazonica , the world's gaudiest water lily, whose leaves spanned six feet across. Rightly reckoning botanical illustration as both an art and a science, Mabey also discusses the influence of its political allies (Princess Augusta, the Earl of Bute and Queen Charlotte each played important roles in furthering the genre's fortunes in Britain). And in his most vivid chapter, ``The Artist as Explorer,'' Mabey cites the darker connections linking botanic mania and imperialism. Here, excerpts taken liberally from the journals of such botanic explorer-illustrators as Sydney Parkinson--who interspersed descriptions of Tahitian plants and customs with a vignette of a midshipman shooting Tahitians for sport--conveys both the scientific wonder and the brutality of the British abroad. Nearly every page is illustrated with outstanding examples by the foremost practitioners of the precise but lyrical art of botanical illustration, selected from the rich repository of work in the Kew archive. (Mar.)
Reviewed on: 02/27/1989
Release date: 03/01/1989
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