Wild about Flowers
Poole-based Christina Hart-Davies, one of the country's leading botanical illustrators, has just finished working on a wild-flower guide that is destined to set the benchmark for such guides for decades to come. Words: Stephen Swann
Talking about her contribution to the publisher Collins' new wild-flower guide. Christina Hart-Davies says, "It was an honour to be asked to paint my own country's flora." An honour certainly, but it must have needed massive amounts of dedication on her part, for the project involved her in four years of work, work that meant painting more than 800 plants in that most difficult of mediums, pure watercolour.
"I had to be disciplined. I did my chores in the morning then went up to the studio and worked through the afternoon and into the evenings," explains Christina. "I worked a six-and-a-half-day week and because botanical illustration calls for great attention to detail I found that six hours was about as much as I could do at any one sitting."
Needless to say, you don't get to be asked to work on a prestigious publication like this unless you are at the very top of your game. And that, believe me, is exactly where Christina is.
Not that this modest lady would ever be so crass as to admit to it. She is not one to sing her own praises. Nor does she have to. Her work does that for her.
Christina was born in Shrewsbury in 1947 but grew up in Northampton. If artistic ability can be said to be inherited from your parents then hers must have come from her mother. "My mum had been a fashion designer with M&S," says Christina. "As for my dad, he taught Business Studies and didn't have an artistic bone in his body!"
She read Fine Art and Typography at Reading University before taking up a post with a London design group, where she was mainly responsible for the design and production of educational books. In 1975, after time spent sailing and travelling in Europe and North America, Christina settled in Dorset and began to combine her twin interests of painting and natural history. Over the years she has held many successful exhibitions not just in the UK but in Australia, the US, France and Sweden, and her work is held in collections worldwide, notably in the Hunt Institute of Botanical Documentation in the US and the Shirley Sherwood Collection of Contemporary Botanical Art. She has illustrated many books, including A Year in a Victorian Garden and The Green Guide to Herbs. She has also contributed illustrations to Kew Magazine, the Royal Horticultural Society's New Dictionary of Gardening, BBC Wildlife magazine, and she illustrates rare plants for Plantlife, the plant conservation charity.
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Christina has a special interest in mosses and lichens (she actually encourages moss to grow in her lawn) and her work on these has been awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Horticultural Society several times. She also holds an RHS Gold Medal and a World Orchid Conference Bronze Medal for her paintings of Australian and European native orchids.
All these accolades have come on the back of much study and extensive travel. In her quest to paint plants from wherever possible, Christina has been all over Europe, Australia and the Americas. In 1993 she joined an expedition to Sumatra to paint plants of the rainforest and mountain areas, whilst holidays have seen her trekking and painting in the Himalayas and 'hunting' tulips in Kazakhstan.
When it came to the new Collins guide, a book that sets the benchmark by which all similar publications will be judged for decades to come, Christina was tasked to make as many drawings as possible from life.
"The brief called for me to pay close attention to botanical accuracy whilst also designing each plate, with its average of eight plants per plate, to be as beautiful as possible - no pressure there, then!" says Christina.
For the first few months she worked alone but then two other illustrators came on board; then as the deadline was extended one further colleague was found. With Christina having more than 800 plants to illustrate, some serious plant hunting was called for. "I sketched from nature, made colour notes and took photographs both in Dorset and further afield," says Christina. "For the more common plants I would take cuttings home in a sandwich box packed with moist grass and put them in the fridge, whilst Jiffy bags with plants in would sometimes arrive in the post."
It seems that plant hunting became something of an obsession. Even a trip to the shops would find Christina checking out plants growing from garden walls, road verges - even the edges of supermarket car parks. Plant-hunting expeditions were planned with care but often whilst searching for a particular plant she would stumble across several others on her list. Here's Christina again: "Whilst at Badbury Rings to look for orchids, I found specimens of three other plants on my list, and two which my colleagues were looking for too. Wareham Common turned out to be full of strawberry clover and other small, unusual trifoliums as well as the statuesque water dock I had spotted from the bypass. Often, plants were to be shown at different stages, so I had to remember where they grew in order to return at the appropriate season."
As for the other Christina, the Christina who is not the constantly-in-demand botanical illustrator, where is she in all this? Christina is a Buddhist, though somewhat agnostic on reincarnation. She finds time to do voluntary work at the local hospice. She has an eclectic taste in music, everything from Vaughan Williams - his Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis would be a Desert Island Discs piece - to heavy metal. She listens to Radio 4 a lot, especially when working.
So, with the book done and dusted, will this immensely gifted lady be taking it easy for a while? Not a bit of it. Christina has two projects about to get under way, both of which involve doing the illustrations for books requiring images of our native wild flowers. And that's just for starters...
Collins Flower Guide
30 April 2009
ISBN 978 0 00 710621 9
To coincide with the publication of the new book, there is to be a special exhibition of some of its botanical paintings.
Wild Flowers of Britain
10am-5pm. Free admission. All the paintings will be
Sir Harold Hillier Gardens, Jermyns Lane, Ampfield, Romsey. (01794 369317) www.hilliergardens.org.uk