Marjorie sketching a plant specimen. Photographs: Charles Francis
December 2007: The flourishing career of acclaimed botanical artist Marjorie Blamey is rooted in a love of the Cornish wildflowers she first painted on her farm near Liskeard more than 40 years ago.
When some of Marjorie’s early works were shown at the Cornwall Spring Flower Show in Truro in the 1960s, they were unframed and taped to a wall – but author Roy Genders knew he had found the perfect to illustrate his latest book.
Marjorie was paid one guinea for each of the four pictures she contributed to Cottage Garden Flowers, published in 1968. “I just wanted to sketch the flowers on our farm – I never meant to get into books,” she says. “But my first big book sold a million copies, and then I was asked to do books for countries all over Europe.”
That million-seller was the first ever pocket field guide, The Wild Flowers of Britain and Northern Europe. Marjorie completed hundreds of illustrations for the book — and almost half of them were produced in the caravan where she and her husband Philip were living while they were waiting for their new house to be built, following their decision to sell the farm. “There were flowers all over the caravan,” recalls Philip. “Hundreds of specimens were sent by botanists in Europe. It was quite incredible.”
Marjorie had to work extremely quickly. “When you have 500 flowers, you have to do 20 a day before they wilt. I don’t want people to keep sending me new specimens of a rare orchid. Luckily, both speed and accuracy come naturally to me.”
Marjorie Blamey painting orchids in her studio
She went on to illustrate books on Mediterranean and Alpine flowers, as well as writing her own guides on painting flowers. The books have been translated into many languages, including Japanese.
Last year, Marjorie was awarded an OBE “for services to art through botanical illustration”, but she is not resting on her laurels. Her latest project is a set of three books of flowers from different European habitats classified by colour. It is due to be published in the spring — which is also when Marjorie will be celebrating her 90th birthday.
Before picking up a paintbrush in her 40s — when three of her four children had left home — Marjorie had led an active and varied life as wartime nurse and ambulance driver, RADA-trained actress, and photographer, as well as farmer. “Looking back, I wish I had had time for a proper botanical training,” she says.
Instead, she has built up her knowledge of each new subject through travels around Europe — the south of France, home of her long-standing editor, Michael Walter, is a favourite haunt — and by building up an extensive library at her home.
After years of being accustomed to working in a confined space on board the mobile home in which she and Philip made their regular trips to the Mediterranean, Marjorie is perfectly happy in a tiny studio at her home in St Germans, which is also the home of an archive, meticulously maintained by Philip, of around 10,000 pieces of her botanical artwork, along with pressings of the original flowers and photographs showing each flower’s habitat.
Despite travelling widely, the couple have never been tempted to leave Cornwall. “I love the peace and quiet and the friendliness of the people — and the flowers,” says Marjorie. “My favourite is the primrose. It’s very Cornish, and such a simple, lovely flower. I am not fond of the great big exotic things. They don’t thrill me like wildflowers do.”
Marjorie Blamey sketching a heather in her garden
Her impressive output is partly due to a passion for her work, but also to tremendous stamina: she has often started her working day at 3.30pm and carried on for 14 hours. She thinks her strength as an artist is that “I make flowers look alive, not like pressed dead things”.
She adds modestly: “I am really a botanical illustrator, not an artist. A botanical artist will spend weeks doing one flower.” But fellow Cornwall-based botanical artist Mally Francis describes Marjorie as “amazing. Her output is remarkable”.
Mally teaches at a studio in the grounds of her home, adjacent to the Lost Gardens of Heligan. It was moving to Cornwall from Leicester which was the catalyst for turning a hobby into a career. Enthused by the range of plants growing just over her garden wall, she asked permission to take cuttings. One day, Heligan’s director, Tim Smit, invited her to illustrate a new book about the flora of the gardens, written by Colin Howlett, who was working there.
“It was a challenge — I had to do 45 paintings in six months, and I wasn’t all that experienced at the time,” says Mally. “At one point, 87 flowers that I was meant to be painting were out at once, and I didn’t know where to start!”
Following the completion of the book, Wild Heligan, Mally was invited to take some introductory courses at the Eden Project, and she now teaches more than 30 people over three days a week at her studio.
She also provided the illustrations for a perpetual diary, Heligan Days, and is a member of the Eden Florilegium Society, a group of 50 experienced botanical artists who have undertaken to paint all the plants growing at Eden for the Project’s archives. As with Marjorie Blamey’s records, the paintings will be stored with specimens of each plant.
This careful cataloguing reflects the origins of botanical art as a practical method of recording detailed information about plants known to have health benefits, something which was of great importance in the days before photography. It was in the sixth century that the first illustrated herbal was published.
During the Renaissance, the drawing and painting of flowers was recognised as a decorative art, and by the 17th century, greater scientific knowledge led to more intricate paintings. Each era has its own style, just as every individual artist does, and none are right or wrong.
As Mally says: “You can ask everyone in a room to paint the same subject and they would all look completely different — yet they would all describe the plant. It’s fascinating.”
‘Observation is paramount’
For any aspiring botanical artist, she adds, the starting point is to take a close look at a plant in its natural setting. “Observation is paramount. You have to be as accurate as you can, and not make any assumptions. Then you have to plan how you’re going to draw that plant to explain it and show it in the best possible way. You try and incorporate all stages of the plant in the picture — bud, seedhead, flower, underside, root system, if necessary — which a photograph can’t do.
“The next thing is to start painting, and create a three-dimensional image from a flat drawing. You can use washes of paint, building up layers of dark and light. It’s important to learn how to mix the right green for each plant. We don’t tend to use green paint — it’s much better to mix blue and yellow, because you get a more natural result.
“You also need to establish a light source and stick to it, as the plant will look different depending on where the light is coming from. Petals coming forward need to be dark, and the ones facing backwards much paler.
“There are lots of different watercolour techniques, such as wet and dry, and dry brushwork, and you may need to apply all these skills in one painting. Different techniques will be appropriate for each plant.
Mally stresses that it is not necessary to have a degree in botany to become a painter of flowers, although it helps to have some horticultural knowledge, or access to a good reference library. “But it’s so much easier now that you can look up plants on the internet.”
“I love teaching — it’s incredibly rewarding to see how people’s work develops — but I am also learning more all the time,” she says. “The more you look, the more you see, and the more you see, the more you need to know. I find it utterly fascinating. It’s the extraordinary beauty of nature, the variety of flowers and colours, which is so inspiring, and it is a great challenge to try and reproduce it on paper.”