Art review: Florilegium: A Gathering of Flowers, Inverleith House, Edinburgh

A project at Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Gardens to create a florilegium – a collection of botanical art to mirror its collection of plants – has proved a blooming success, writes Susan Mansfield

Detail from As If The Entanglements Of Our Lives Did Not Matter: Paw Paw (2019-2020) by Annalee Davis  PIC: Daniel Christaldi
Detail from As If The Entanglements Of Our Lives Did Not Matter: Paw Paw (2019-2020) by Annalee Davis PIC: Daniel Christaldi

Florilegium: A Gathering of Flowers, Inverleith House ****

The closure of Inverleith House in 2016, after a long and illustrious history as a space for modern and contemporary art, sent shock waves through the art world. The Georgian House, in the leafy midst of Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Gardens (RBGE) has hosted occasional exhibitions since, mainly of art with botanical themes, but its future as a gallery seemed far from secure.

An announcement in May heralded its transformation into Climate House, with a three-year programme of art on ecological and botanical themes, a major award from the Outset Contemporary Art Fund and a partnership with the Serpentine Gallery in London’s Hyde Park.

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    Night Garden (Cardiocrinum) by Wendy McMurdo 2020 PIC: Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

    This year’s programme, the first brought together by Emma Nicolson, who came to the gardens as head of creative programmes 18 month ago from Skye’s Atlas Arts, aimed to celebrate the RBGE’s 350th anniversary. The planned exhibitions and activities were badly disrupted by the pandemic, and this show, which was intended as the finale, now looks more like a beginning than an end. No matter - it works in either position.

    RBGE, unlike most botanical gardens, does not have a Florilegium - a collection of botanical art to mirror its collection of plants. This show takes the first steps towards making one, but with a bold new spin on the idea: it will include both botanical art and commissioned works by contemporary artists.

    Artists from all over the world responded to an open call for botanical paintings illustrating plants in the RBGE glass houses, and other scientifically important plants in the collection. With travel restricted due to the pandemic, the artists were unable to work in situ, but some - in Brazil, India and the Far East - were able to draw the plants concerned in their native habitat.

    The works in the show were selected from a large international submission, and brought together despite all the challenges one would expect moving art around the world during a global pandemic. They are works of minute observation and precision, but the best also capture something of the essence, the life of their subjects, and have an aesthetic awareness of form too, as in Mieko Ishikawa’s beautiful studies of ferns.

    100 Days with Lily by Lee Mingwei, 1995 PIC: Courtesy of Lee Studio

    Interestingly, botanical illustration still has an important role to play in the study of plants, and the show also includes the work of the botanical painters who work at the gardens, including a tribute to artist and teacher Lizzie Sanders, who died in the summer. Taken together, they illustrate a range of approaches to botanical art: some are studies of a single specimen, others bring in seed pods and reproductive parts, the environment and its pollinators, bringing onto a single page the entire life cycle of the plant.

    The brief life cycle of a flower is a potent metaphor both for mortality and for regeneration, and this is very much present in the work of the contemporary artists who responded to elements of the RBGE collection. Edinburgh-based photographer Wendy McMurdo’s Night Garden is a collection of images she made in lockdown around the surprise flowering of a giant Himalayan lily in her garden. The Cardiocrinum giganteum, planted years before and forgotten, began to grow - reaching a height of 3.5m - during the unusually warm spring, in the weeks following McMurdo’s mother’s death at the height of the pandemic.

    These photographs, shot at night, are a reflection on a dark time, but also capture a surprising - and almost absurdly dramatic - flowering in the midst of the darkness. Two further works, from a series entitled Indeterminate objects (Flora), use video game software to create images which show flowers at different stages of blooming and withering in the same vase. They seem to collapse time, not so much a memento mori, but a reminder that, all too often, life and death happen in the same frame.

    There is something similar going on in 100 Days with Lily, an early work by Taiwanese-American artist Lee Mingwei. When his grandmother died, the artist decided to live with a narcissus - or Lent lily - for 100 days, the traditional period of mourning in Taiwanese culture. On large photographic prints he records his various daily activities “with Lily” - cooking, sleeping, meditating and so on - and the life of the plant, from its planting (day 1) through germination, to expiration (day 83) and finally exhumation, though, if planted again, it will bloom perennially.

    Detail from Paulownia tomentosa by Mieko Ishikawa PIC: Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

    A recent work by Mingwei, Invitation for Dawn, is also included: visitors to the gallery can sign up for a live online encounter with an opera singer, who will give each person a recital of a single song, a lockdown version of Mingwei’s 2013 project, Sonic Blossom 2013, and a “gift of song” for these troubled times.

    Barbadian artist Annalee Davis weaves plants into a much longer history in her series called As if the entanglements of our lives did not matter. Davis lives and works on a former sugar plantation, delving into her own mixed-race family history. Her works are made on the pages of the plantation’s old ledgers.

    Into the pictures, she weaves drawings of plants from the RBGE collection which are native to the plantation’s soil, blue vervain and sow thistle, plants growing wild but which were believed to have health-giving properties. She focuses particularly on the roots, twisting and twining, as if reminding us that the past is often difficult to entangle.

    Lyndsay Mann’s film, A Desire for Organic Order, was made at the RGBE Herbarium (which houses its extensive collection of dried plants), and takes a thoughtful meander through the history and politics of plant collecting, from Linnaeus to Mary Wollstonecraft, paying particular attention to the work of the Centre for Middle Eastern Plants, also based at RGBE. Thoughtful and probing, it poses questions about nativeness and belonging, and is best watched right through, but at 56 minutes, represents a significant time commitment.

    It’s an exhibition of two halves, with the contemporary and botanical art kept separate until the final room where they are allowed - a little uneasily - to mingle. It’s a reminder that Inverleith House has been through an uneasy period of transition, with its own tangled roots, and is now engaged in finding the common ground between two very different worlds: art and science.

    But it is also a hopeful show, illustrating the potential fruitfulness of such collaborations, and the ways in which plants open up much wider conversations about the world at large. It is also reminder that loss, in the plant world, is a precursor to the planting of the next generation of seeds, and the beginnings of growth and renewal.

    Until 13 December. Admission is free but visitors must book a (free) time slot to enter the Gardens, see

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