IT’S 4pm Thursday as curatorial staff move around the Art Gallery of Ballarat preparing for the landmark exhibition, Capturing Flora: 300 years of Australian botanical art, which opens on Tuesday.
Gallery director and exhibition curator Gordon Morrison paces around the space, watching the exhibition he has envisaged for nearly a decade coming to life around him.
Large and small, colourful and simple, accessible and scientific – glimpses of nature fill the walls.
For Gordon, the 10 weeks ahead are the realisation of a long-held vision.
“The first work I ever acquired for the gallery, back in February 2004, was a botanical work that is in this show and it was probably inevitable that we were going to do a botanical show one day,” he said.
“It’s been bubbling away for quite a long time but, about five years ago, I bought a book which was written by an Australian botanical artist named Helen Hewson. She covered the 300 years of what has been done in Australia and I thought ‘here is a template for how you can go about collecting’ and I realised it was such an omission that no one has ever done a show based on her curatorial work.”
As a result, Capturing Flora is set to become the most comprehensive exhibition of Australian botanical art ever held. And, in the eyes of its curator, it is a long overdue tribute to the tradition and
practice of botanic art. Organised into three main sections, the exhibition brings together more than 350 original drawings and prints from the Ballarat collection and major Australian institutions.
The first room features works related to the earliest encounters European explorers had with Australian flora.
Gordon proudly shows a set of rare 18th century prints of plants found by buccaneer William
Dampier on his 1699 visit to the Kimberleys, presented in a room which also features handcoloured
prints and images from exploration by Captain James Cook on Australia’s east coast.
Included are a group of beautiful 1770s etchings which Gordon explained were nearly lost forever as England endured war.
“When they got back to London, Joseph Banks paid for them to be etched onto copper plates but he later lost interest in the project and died in 1820.
They never were printed and they were handed over to the British Museum,” he said.
“The first time they were printed was in 1905 but, during World War II, someone decided in their wisdom that these copperplates could be melted down as part of the war effort.
But a young botanist named Wilfrid Blunt saw that happening and basically threw himself
in front of the truck so they survived.”
As we move through the exhibition, Gordon notices details yet to be attended to and calls out to gallery staff working nearby. He shares with one his unwarranted concern that visitors might get
“museum fatigue” as they visit the exhibition but is quickly convinced otherwise.
Bright flowers and fascinating plants beckon the visitor from room to room.
A collection of smaller works profile the growing popularity of Australian plants at home and around the world, including those introduced by European gardeners in cities such as Bonn, Germany and across Spain.
Gordon explains that they acted as one of the earliest promotions for Australian flora.
“Every single image you see in this room is from a kind of garden magazine of the 19th century, which was the way people found out about these exciting new things. They are all popular, high-quality means of reproduction with the key purpose of saying ‘there’s this new exotic type of flora and if you’ve got the right type of hot house, you can grow them’,” he said.
Nearby, Capturing Flora showcases works by Ferdinand von Mueller, the first director of Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens, with a section devoted to the links between research of
botanical plants with visual arts.
Visitors will be reminded throughout the exhibition that the beauty of the artworks is matched by their scientific value – and the curiosity these rare species would have been met with when transported to
A striking collection of waratah images stands out, and Gordon explains that these complex and beautiful flowers welcomed the first European arrivals at Port Jackson.
“They just took to them in the most incredible way, because it is actually quite easy to grow these in a greenhouse. They start appearing from the early moments that Europeans are depicting these plants,” he said.
The role of women artists is another special feature of the show, with both amateurs and professionals contributing to the recording and popularisation of Australian plants.
“Some, like Louisa Meredith and Ellis Rowan, have been celebrated for their work, while others like Eliza Blyth and Fannie de Mole are still relatively obscure,” Gordon said.
A beautiful series of playing card-sized works from the 1790s are displayed together, coming from a guide known as a ‘pocket naturalist’. Perhaps an early ancestor to the Lonely Planet, the books were carried by the owners to educate through images of plants and animals.
“By reading the text and looking at the image, gentlemen and ladies in the Jane Austin era would go into a drawing room and discuss the waratah of New South Wales,” Gordon said.
The final room of the show documents the revival of Australian botanical art which has been produced since World War II.
Evidenced by the development of the careers of artists such as Margaret Stones and Celia
Rosser, there are also examples of the best botanical art of the current day, including works by
Jenny Phillips, Anita Barley and Mali Moir.
“Australia is really widely regarded as one of the most vibrant places for botanical art in the world,” Gordon said.
“Certainly it is an area where the country is a leader in the field.”
The springtime exhibition will play host to a series of special musical performances and artistic workshops inspired by the beauty of nature, including a roving recital by poets based around the works.
Although botanical works have been included in the Art Gallery of Ballarat collection since about
1950, Gordon says the upcoming exhibition will be a landmark event.
Standing next to that first acquisition from 2004, Margaret Stones’ Passifl ora aurantia, the
proud curator says the exhibition is a world leader.
“There have been regular botanical art exhibitions around the country but they have tended
to focus on what is going on at the current moment, so I believe we can genuinely say this exhibition
Capturing Flora: 300 years of Australian botanical art opens on Tuesday and runs until Sunday,
Admission is $12, concession $8 and free for children and gallery members.
For more information on the concerts, classes and presentations associated with the exhibition, visit
capturingflora.com.au or call 5320 5858.