Tuesday 22 October 2019

The bee keeper - Dublin artist on the rare tradition of botanical art

The ancient and rare tradition of botanical art is being preserved by Dublin artist Shevaun Doherty. She told our reporter about her Egyptian influences and the importance of vellum

The bee's knees: illustrator Shevaun Doherty at the Natural History Museum or 'Dead Zoo'. Photo: Steve Humphreys
The bee's knees: illustrator Shevaun Doherty at the Natural History Museum or 'Dead Zoo'. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Sarah Mac Donald

Next year, An Post will issue a series of stamps featuring native Irish bees. It is a tribute to the industrious insect's role in pollinating our crops and plants, and making the Irish agri-economy as successful as it is. But it is also a recognition that bees are a threatened species.

The artist commissioned to illustrate these bee stamps is Dublin-based botanical artist Shevaun Doherty. Visitors to the annual Bloom festival may have seen her listed as a prize winner for the past four years. At Bloom 2017, she not only won gold medal in the Botanical and Floral Art category, but was awarded Best in Show for her painting of Victoria plums.

A botanical artist is a rare thing in an era of instantaneous digital art, photography and design. The 49-year-old mother-of-two enthuses about the special insights of her craft.

"Botanical art can explain something in a way that a photograph never can, capturing the beauty while remaining scientifically accurate. Sometimes it means painting something that, in reality, could never happen, like showing the whole life cycle of a plant in one painting, or painting a selection of different bees all in one meadow scene."

Shevaun's Belfast-born father was in the RAF and she and her brothers only came to live in Ireland when she was 10, after stints in Cyprus and Malta. Her mother is the English-born conservator Cresten Doherty, who is currently working on a conservation project at Dublin Castle.

Shevaun was "always interested in art and nature" and as a child collected animals and insects. But her epiphany came decades later, when she visited an exhibition of botanical art at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery in Kew Gardens, London in 2008. "I remember just standing in front of this beautiful painting and thinking I want to paint like that."

Every plant recorded

Botanical art was first produced in Egypt 3,500 years ago. The ancient Egyptians believed that everything that was painted on to the walls of their tombs would come with them into the afterlife. Pharaoh Thutmose III (who ruled from 1479-1425 BC) collected rare species during his military campaigns and created a botanical chamber at Karnak, in which every plant and animal in his kingdom was carefully recorded on the walls.

Shevaun's knowledge of Egyptology was picked up during the years she lived in the shadow of the pyramids in Cairo, while her interest in botany was animated by her forays into the Sinai desert as she taught her two daughters about their natural environment.

"My art is very much connected to my relationship with my daughters. While we were living in Egypt, Alia and Nadia would come home and show me things they had found - a beetle or a plant, and ask me about them. I started researching what they were showing me so as to teach the girls about them, and then I would paint what I saw."

She discovered that the Sinai desert was on the migration path for swallows and swifts making their way from Europe to Africa. But it was not just migratory birds, the Painted Lady butterfly is known to windsurf all the way from Europe to Sinai.

Egypt inspired her because it "has incredible light and that light bounces off things". She applied to do a distance learning course in botanical art and discovered that the woman who founded the Society of Botanical Artists in the UK in 1985, Suzanne Lucas (1915-2008), was similarly inspired during her time living in Egypt.

History and art collided for Shevaun in January 2011 when she was studying for the Society of Botanical Artists' Distance Learning Course as the Arab Spring was unfolding in Egypt. As things escalated in Cairo's Tahrir Square, there were "tanks all around where I lived, helicopters overhead, men with machetes on the street outside".

Her brother-in-law witnessed someone being shot dead on the street in front of him. Meanwhile, Shevaun was trying to complete a botanical art assignment on Egyptian carrots, not even sure if it would ever make it to her tutor. "We were freaked out. It was just my daughters and myself. This lovely woman from the Department of Foreign Affairs would ring every day to see how we were. 'Grand,' I would reply, 'I am painting carrots and it's fine.' It was really surreal!"

When she finished her diploma, she decided she really wanted to make a career as a botanical artist but found herself at a crossroads. "Botanical art is very exacting, so each painting can take weeks, even months, so it's not very lucrative. Not only that, but the paintings are in watercolour, and are not valued like oil paintings, even though watercolour is technically more challenging."

Last year, she studied digital marketing at the Dublin Business School to learn how to market her work online, and judging by her 27,000 Instagram followers, it is working.

Raise awareness

Passionate about conservation, she is using her art to raise awareness of the plight of bees - she designed the logo for the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan. "It's great to see my bee appearing in parks and gardens across Ireland," she says.

She hopes that next year's stamps will draw attention to the huge role bees play in Irish agriculture. Most people only think of the bumble bee and the honey bee, but there are, in fact, "20 types of bumblebee, 77 different species of solitary bee in Ireland and only one honey bee. Each solitary bee can do the work of up to 180 honey bees".

In the kind of aside you get when you follow her on social media, she explains that the Brehon laws devoted pages to bees because honey was recognised as so precious. One of the things that makes Shevaun happiest is when someone exclaims 'I never knew that' on learning something from her work.

"I love to hear that. I learn every day and I love it if people can also learn from my art.

"This all started with my desire to learn about those beetles and plants my daughters were bringing home to me. I think the role of the botanical artist is to make the connection between art and learning."

She also believes art has a role in connecting the present with the past. She has been involved in promoting awareness of Ireland's first female botanist, Ellen Hutchins (1785-1815), who left an astonishing eight-year epistolary exchange with fellow botanist Dawson Turner.

There is now an annual festival devoted to Hutchins in her native Bantry organised by Madeline Hutchins, her great great great grandniece. This year, Trinity College Dublin hosted an exhibition on her botanising and discovery of new species of seaweeds, lichens, mosses and liverworts, before her life was sadly cut short at just 29 from tuberculosis. Shevaun was invited to paint one of her specimens from TCD's Herbarium, a seaweed which Hutchins collected in Bantry Bay over 200 years ago.

Shevaun used vellum in her live botanical art demonstration. Why? "Paper is very bland and one dimensional; with vellum, the paint sits on the surface, creating a three-dimensional effect. There are very few people using vellum today and just two vellum makers in the whole world now, one in the UK and one in the States."

By using vellum, she feels linked to the early Christian monks who produced manuscripts like the Book of Kells.

"I love connecting art and history and reviving something that would have been lost. Each piece of vellum is unique and tells us something about the animal it came from. I love the idea that even the thing that you are painting on becomes part of the story," she says.

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