Worldwide Day of Botanical Art - interview with Rosemary Wise

May 18 marks Worldwide Day of Botanical Art, so what better way to celebrate than to feature the lifetime achievement of our very own resident artist, Rosemary Wise?

With a sensational career spanning five decades, Rosemary joined the Department as a botanic artist after having read Fine Arts at Reading University: “It was a very academic course and we spent three days a week drawing the human body. I didn’t find it terribly interesting so I asked if I could draw plants instead, and as Botany was right next door to Fine Arts they said I could go draw in the greenhouse... I loved it!”

Her first role within the Department – back then, the Forestry Department – was working with Frank White to illustrate the vegetation of Africa. The majority of Rosemary’s work involves line drawings using dried herbarium material.  “You can’t give your work any sort of perspective,” said Rosemary.

Unless you know the species very well, you will have no idea of the angle in which the leaves are held. Sometimes, if there are many flowers on a sheet, it is possible to remove one to rehydrate and dissect, which is a skill of its own. These need to be packeted and attached to the sheet after drawing.

However, before too long, Rosemary was fortunate to join many expeditions to record plants on some incredible trips overseas. “On some of my first trips I am ashamed to say that I didn’t immediately recognise some plants, being more used to seeing them brown, flat and sewn onto card.”

Two trips to Peru to record tree species; supervising artists in Bolivia; plant recognition exercises in the Caribbean; jaunts north to Lapland; studies in the Algarve and southern Spain; expeditions to Ethiopia and Kenya; out to West Papua to record typical species from sea level to altitudes of 4,000 meters; two research Fellowships to Papua New Guinea; and teaching positions in Australia are but some of the fascinating adventures that have spanned Rosemary’s time with the Department.

One day out of the blue, Rosemary was sitting at morning coffee and was approached by Barry Juniper, who asked her outright whether or not she could swim. She recalls fondly: “Barry wanted me to do a sub-aqua course which I did with the students and then the following year accompanied some on an expedition to the Seychelles.” This trip was the tip of the iceberg, as Rosemary returned no fewer than 15 times on a project to find and paint all 80 endemic species. Her book, ‘A Fragile Eden’, was published by Princeton University Press. “That book is probably one of my biggest achievements,” notes Rosemary.

Other wonderful career highlights include illustrating Terry Pennington’s DPhil thesis during her early career and then having the pleasure of undertaking the same task for his son Toby a mere 27 years later.

Most of Rosemary’s work involves line drawings, carefully drawn in pencil before inking in using three different nib sizes. It is apparent that Rosemary is completely in love with her art, that she calls her ‘labour of love’.

In later years, Rosemary has run Oxford Botanic Garden and Harcourt Arboretum Florilegium Project, where 14 artists volunteer their time and skills painting plants from both venues for university archives. In 2015, Rosemary was awarded the prestigious Sibthrop Medal from the Department for her lifetime services to botany.

Rather bashfully, she admits to illustrating over 14.000 species so far, quite possibly more than any other botanical artist. “It’s been a great career and I couldn’t have hoped for anything better than this. After 53 years, I don’t have any plans to retire if I can help it!”

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The Oxford Botanic Garden and Harcourt Arboretum Florilegium Project team will be live drawing at the Oxford University Botanic Garden on May 18th, and will be delighted to answer questions from members of the public. Rosemary will also give a special lecture to the Department of Plant Sciences at 13:00 on Tuesday 22 May.

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