Holly Somerville. Botanical Artist

Holly Somerville. Botanical Artist

I must confess to be a bit of a frustrated artist myself, in fact my past career involved slopping paint around the canvas but sadly I can't seem to find the time anymore. I'm always a bit jealous when I see someone who has managed to combine art and a career and especially when I see someone as talented as Holly Somerville.

Hollys illustrations are sublime in their colour and detail and viewed close up are really quite breathtaking. I've done a little interview with her and was delighted to learn she's now offering courses at her beautiful Wicklow home for anyone keen to learn this wonderful skill. Contact details and course description can be found at www.hollysomerville.com/courses

 Tell us a little about the background of botanical illustration, did plant finding expeditions literally bring a water colourist with them to the jungles of borneo?

Absolutely!  I have been reading the account of Cook’s first Pacific voyage on the Endeavour; he was accompanied by several artists including Sydney Parkinson (1745-1771) who came to ‘an untimely death at sea’.  The artists on board were inundated with collected plant material, of which they made brief sketches.  Full paintings were created later back in England by a team of artists.

Why has the practice of botanical illustration remained even though we now have easy access to high quality photography etc...?

When illustrating one can use a certain amount of artistic licence to describe the entire plant on one page.  Even though cameras are incredibly clever now they can never achieve the complete detail allowed by painting, nor do they capture the character of a plant so well as the best illustrations do, so beautifully.

Where did your interest in botanical illustration come from? Does it stem (excuse the pun) from an interest  in plants or was it the painting that attracted you?

From very young I always painted plants if given a choice.  I saw it more as a hobby until I finished my botany degree and realised I could combine both interests.  As a student I was so impressed by a visit to the Marianne North Gallery at Kew, crammed with her luscious paintings.  She was a Victorian botanical artist who spent most of her life on fantastically intrepid painting journeys, worldwide, often unaccompanied.  In an ideal world this would be my dream job.

I know you have work in some important collections and exhibited in the R.H.A and R.U.A. Do you see yourself more as a painter than illustrator?

I have veered a little more towards being what you might call a ‘painter’ in the last few years, but I am always drawn back again and again to plants, and the wonderful way they can fill a sheet of paper with their colour and form.  Nature is the real painter, and I merely reproduce what she has invented.  The way a botanical artist lays the painting out on the paper is so important though.  If done badly it can send the viewer’s eye off in all the wrong directions.

I saw on the website you did a lot of work with the Trinity botany dept, tell us a bit about that. Were you sitting in a dusty wood paneled office with a pipe and an eye shade?

I spent much time in Trinity herbarium and it was wood-panelled, floor to ceiling cupboards containing racks and racks of collected and dried plants.  I loved working there amongst these thousands of specimens, some hundreds of years old, from all corners of the world.  I boiled up flowers and buds to rehydrate them, then dissected them for pen and ink drawings. I loved the peace and the science of it all.

What different courses do you run and where? What could someone hope to achieve after attending? Are there special disciplines particular to botanic illustration, is there instruction in basic botany for example?

At my home in the Glen of Imaal, West Wicklow, I have renovated an old millhouse to create a large, bright studio and gallery, on eleven acres of garden over-looking the Wicklow mountains.  I am growing many interesting things to paint, and this year from May I will be teaching botanical watercolour weekends, for beginners or improvers.  There will not be too much science, but I will emphasise the importance of looking really carefully at the anatomy of the flower or plant, how it really works and grows, before getting stuck into painting.  Then it will be all about colour (and having fun!).  More details can be found on www.hollysomerville.com/courses