Pretty as a picture


Holly Somerville, an artist of exquisite botanical watercolours, pins success on fine-tuned observational skills, spatial awareness and a high degree of patience, writes FIONNUALA FALLON

THE WOODEN desk of the Wicklow-based botanical illustrator Holly Somerville may be larger than most, but even so, there’s scarcely room on it to rest a cup of coffee. That’s because whatever space isn’t taken up with her large drawing board is filled instead with the accoutrements of an artist’s busy studio: jam jars of paintbrushes made from the finest sable; a huddle of tiny porcelain mixing-bowls; bundles of sharpened pencils, pens and rulers as well as a gloriously jumbled pile of watercolour paints in shades of viridian, aureolin, burnt umber and cobalt blue.

Nearby is a collection of botanical specimens that includes the tall, sculptural seedheads of the lofty Himalayan lily and a dainty bowl of its paper-thin seeds as well as a bottle-green glass vase that holds the tufted, powder-puff seed-heads of wild bog cotton. There’s even an assortment of china fragments, many of which Somerville dug up in her own country garden, and which now lie together, neatly arranged, on a wooden board.

“I’ve just finished a drawing of them,” she says, pointing to details of the hand-painted decoration (a tiny bluebird, a scarlet flower) that first attracted her eye. Somerville has, as it turns out, already done something similar for the garden designer, Assumpta Broomfield. “She arrived at the opening of one of my exhibitions carrying a bag filled with fragments of china she’d dug up in a client’s garden, and commissioned a painting of them as a gift for him. I just thought it was such a lovely idea . . .” Which brings us neatly back to Somerville’s exquisite botanical watercolours, and an artistic talent that has resulted in her paintings hanging in collections around the country. Propped up against the studio’s sloping walls is a small but lovely selection of work that includes a delicate study of a scarlet-fleshed radish, while another shows the just-opening, peacock-blue umbels of the African lily, and a third illustrates the swollen seedpods of the tree poppy, Romneya coulteri.

A graduate of Somerville College, Oxford, where she gained a masters in botany, Dublin-born Somerville then did a BA in illustration from Edinburgh College of Art, before returning to Dublin in 1994. “The art degree came after my botanical studies but while I love botany and gardening, in fact my first love has always been art,” she says. “My mother is a sculptor and she’s always ‘done’ plants, so from early childhood my interest in art was encouraged. When I came back to Ireland after graduating from Edinburgh, I was lucky enough to get a job in the herbarium of the botany department in Trinity College, working under the botanist John Parnell. Eventually I ended up doing the botanical illustrations for the seventh edition of David Webb’s An Irish Flora.

“All in all, I think I contributed about a hundred tiny little pen-and-ink drawings for it, including lots of illustrations of individual leaves, seeds, stems etc. It took me a couple of months to complete them because they had to be correct in every botanical detail – I spent an awful lot of time looking through a microscope,” she says. “But it was a great discipline, because I learnt that to be a successful botanical artist you not only need great observational skills and a well-developed spatial awareness, you also need lots of patience. It’s almost meditational; you have to be the sort of person who can sit still for hours.”

Various commissions soon followed that one, including work for universities in Scotland, Australia, Germany and the Netherlands, and scientific journals such as Blumea. One of the most demanding was from the National Trust – an invitation to illustrate the shrub, Viburnum plicatum “Rowallane”.

“I always paint from life rather than photographs,” explains Somerville. “So because I had to illustrate not just its flowers and its leaves but also its subsequent fruit and seeds, it took me several months and several return visits to the Rowallane garden in Co Down before I could complete the painting.”

Somerville has also just finished renovating an old millhouse in the grounds of her home in the Glen of Imaal in west Wicklow, which serves as a large studio-cum-gallery space where the artist now runs botanical watercolour courses. The surrounding Arthur Shackleton-designed gardens offer plenty in the way of inspirational plant materials. “In my experience, the kinds of people who paint flowers well are almost always very good gardeners. And I’ve learnt an awful lot about the art of botanical illustration that I’d love to share with others.” As for the question of whether she truly believes that it’s possible for anyone to learn the art of botanical illustration, Somerville’s answer is an enthusiastic yes. “I genuinely think it’s all about applying yourself. Practice makes perfect.”

Limited places remain available for the next botanical watercolour workshop at Mount Slaney Gallery Studio, which takes place on July 28th-29th and costs €140. For more details, check out hollysomerville.comor phone Holly Somerville at 087-6374720

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