Born: 19 March, 1906, in Aldershot.
Died: 6 February, 2006, in London, aged 99.
HER illustrations of flora and fauna set a standard for detail and botanical knowledge that have been equalled but seldom bettered. Stella Ross-Craig's famous book Drawings of British Plants was originally aimed at the non-professional and was finally published complete in 1973 to help the growing band of gardening enthusiasts. The book soon assumed a classic status and became an absolute authoritative reference for botanists the world over. Senior curators at Kew and the Royal Botanical Gardens at Inverleith have acknowledged that the book proved a vital force in their education. It was, therefore, only fitting that in 2002 the Inverleith House Gallery mounted an exhibition of some of her works. Colleagues knew her, with reason, as "Kew's longest-serving botanical artist".
Both Ross-Craig's parents were Scottish but her father worked in Kent as a chemist. She attended the local school and then studied art at Thanet Art School. By then she had gained a growing interest in botany and went to Chelsea Art School to study drawing. She started contributing illustrations to specialised periodicals for Kew and the Royal Horticultural Society: her reputation for care and accuracy were soon established as was her ability as an artist.
The first illustrations for Drawings of British Plants were published in a series of cheap (6/-) paperback books. The drawings were superbly exact from a botanical point of view: all done with immense care in black and white. But Ross-Craig brought to the drawings an innate enthusiasm and skill that added and extra and compelling dimension.
Such was the interest in the series that when William Blunt, the ultimate authority on botanical art, came to write his classic work The Art of Botanical Illustration in 1950, he commissioned Ross-Craig to provide all the illustrations of the plants. Blunt was totally captivated by her work and called Ross-Craig "unrivalled" in her field.
The series Drawings of British Plants proved a lengthy exercise. The final drawings appeared in 1973 and included 1,350 exquisite plates of every plant native to the British Isles. It soon established itself as the single most useful account of the British flora ever produced: it is now out of print and a collector's item. Even in 1978, when it was issued in hard back, it sold out immediately at 120.
Ross-Craig's working methods were exacting. She would read up on the history of the plant and then magnify the diagnostic details to make her first sketch. A detailed drawing in pencil on white board was then done and finished in black ink with a lithographic pen. There were then subtle additions to indicate the size of plant, roots etc. The botanical accuracy of Ross-Craig's illustrations was magnificent. Even specialists marvelled at her ability to differentiate between two native brambles, depict the rarely seen duckweed flower and capture unusual berries nestling on elder flower. All were executed and captured with her expert knowledge and extreme patience.
In 2002, 55 of her illustrations came from the herbarium at Kew to the Inverleith House Gallery at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Edinburgh. Under the imaginative curator Paul Nesbitt, the exhibition had a vibrancy and vivacity that did the artist complete justice. It was remarkable as, at a mere 95, it was the first exhibition of Ross-Craig's drawings and demonstrated just what a complete botanical draughtsman she was. The exhibition, after its time at Inverleith, went on to the Kew Gardens Gallery.
Mr Nesbitt told The Scotsman yesterday: "Organising the exhibition was a total joy. Stella was confined to a wheel chair and not able to make the journey north, but she took infinite care over the selection of the drawings - it was very much her personal choice. Many of the plants grew only in Scotland, but the quality of her work was astounding. They were all - from first to last - of a very special quality.
"The exhibition in Edinburgh was exceptionally well attended and we were very glad when we included some of Stella's works in an exhibition here last year called Evergreens. She was an exceptional lady: bright, witty, gentle and wonderfully modest. She was special."
Her husband predeceased her.