Beauty at a brush stroke

 

The problem with being a gardener - especially at this time of the year when the garden is galloping away from you - is that you rarely get time to look at the plants. Sure, you look at them, but often with a kind of frazzled resentment: that one needs staking, this one must be repotted, and that one over there is looking decidedly sick. The May garden, if you're not careful to adjust your mental perspective, becomes a series of urgent obstacles.

So, with all this needy vegetable matter bellowing at you the minute you step outside the door, the idea of staying inside and communing with a single plant for weeks on end seems like a marvellously untimely bit of navel-gazing. But that is exactly what 29-year-old Deborah Lambkin does day after day, whatever the season. Alone with her chosen subject, she sits: itemising sepals, stipules and stamens; measuring petioles and peduncles; and pondering on the exact hue, shape and sheen of leaf and petal. The angle of each vein, the length of each leaf-hair and the pitch of every midrib are all grist to this woman's mill. And bread and butter, too - because Deborah Lambkin is a botanical artist. We gardeners need people like Deborah, not just to record accurately every detail of plants in a way that photographs cannot do, but to jolt our senses into appreciating again the intricate magic of individual species. Because really, when you're caked with soil and ploughing through a sea of burgeoning green stuff, there's no time or space to do anything other than frantically hope you'll find your way out before the end of the season. Botanical artists like Deborah, who operate on a higher, contemplative plane, have a valuable purpose in lifting us off our knees in the muck to marvel at the perfection and exactitude of nature.

And her gift (one that is augmented with lots of hard slog) has recently been acknowledged with one of the highest accolades available to botanical artists. At last February's Winter Series Exhibition at the Royal Horticultural Society in London, Deborah was presented with a gold medal for her collection of eight paintings of nerines - those southern African bulbs whose pink or white sugarcandy flowers decorate many of our autumn borders. The 20 or so contributors to the exhibition came from all over Europe, and one other gold medal was awarded this time, to a Spanish artist. In the past, it is worth noting, only one other Irish artist has been given a gold: Wendy Walsh, the octogenarian grande dame of botanical painting. Not surprisingly, the veteran virtuoso has been an inspiration to Deborah since she took up the botanical brush. And "she is always very generous with her help, and is a great encouragement if I get a bit downhearted."

Deborah did her first study - of a flowering currant in her parents' Sutton garden - in 1991. And then, for several years, she combined working in an ad agency, Motive Advertising and Design, with painting in the evenings and at weekends. Last year, while preparing an exhibition of portraits of vireya rhododendrons at the National Botanic Gardens (which acquired all 20 of the paintings), she gave up the job to concentrate full time on her botanical art. The rhododendrons won her an RHS Grenfell Silver medal, as did an earlier series of wildflowers of Ireland. And her next project, Irish apple cultivars, sounds like another sure winner.

Currently, some commercial illustration helps to pay the bills, but most of Deborah's time is spent carefully noting, drawing and painting every minute detail of particular plants. And that's not as straightforward as it might be, because as many as possible of the plant's flower-phases must be shown - from bud to fully-fledged bloom to brittle seedhead - and, if feasible, the hidden bit under the soil: bulb, root, corm or tuber. This means that a painting sometimes cannot be finished for months.

It also means that Deborah - who has no garden except for a balcony - must rely on the kindness of gardeners to provide her with material, often precious specimens dug up from the soil. But, I'm sure they feel that it's a small price to pay to be reminded that plants are creations of amazing, ordered beauty - and not just chaotic, needy green things that rule the lives of gardeners from one end of the year to the next.

Deborah Lambkin will exhibit her work tomorrow from noon to 5.30 p.m. at The Hibernian Hotel, Eastmoreland Place (off Baggot Street), Dublin 2. Prices range from £150 to £1,000. Inquiries: 01-6608785.