Tuesday 16 October 2018

Wicklow's floral artists are in full bloom

Reporter David Medcalf took a crash course in botanical art from three of Ireland's leading painters of plants, Lynn Stringer, Yanny Petters and Holly Somerville - all of whom live in County Wicklow

Yanny Petters, Holly Somerville and Lynn Stringer at Yanny’s studios in Newtownmountkennedy
Yanny Petters, Holly Somerville and Lynn Stringer at Yanny’s studios in Newtownmountkennedy

They inhabit the border between art and science.

They create objects of beauty by drawing on the works of nature.

They bring fresh joy to a discipline that has brought both understanding and pleasure for centuries.

Meet Wicklow's flower girls - Holly Somerville, Lynn Stringer and Yanny Petters, three of the country's leading painters of flowers, all living in the same county. Holly resides in the Glen of Imaal, Lynn in Kilcoole and Yanny in Enniskerry. Together they bring their painters' perspective to Bloom, organising the annual exhibition of horticultural art at the country's biggest gardening event in the Phoenix Park.

Holly hails originally from Dublin but has resided for the past 13 years in the Glen of Imaal, where she and her family have taken over a converted sawmill.

The work of renovation is never ending but the place provides not only accommodation but also room for the studio where she paints or runs workshops to teach others.

Holly's art is underpinned by hardnosed science as she took a degree botany at Oxford University where, by coincidence, she stayed at Somerville College.

Three of the eight botanists in her class at Oxford turned out to be artists, with the Irish woman rounding off her UK education at Edinburgh College of Art.

She found the move to Scotland personally liberating. Where university was 'structured and scientific', Edinburgh was simply 'totally brilliant'.

Though it may have been stimulating, instructive and fun, it did not lead directly to a job.

Returning from college in 1994, she spent six months selling advertising space for the Irish Independent before she found a niche more in keeping with her talents.

She was recruited by the department of botany in Trinity College, where she tended the dried specimens in the herbarium and assisted graduate and PhD students.

She was later re-deployed to use her talent as an artist at the Trinity botanical gardens in the southside suburb of Darty, where she is being succeeded by Yanny Petters.

The name signals Yanny's German background, her parents having arrived in Ireland back in 1951 moving a few years later to put down permanent roots in Enniskerry.

She is well known in the area as a teacher of art, passing on her skills in the former national school in the village, while she has a studio a few miles away in Newtownmountkennedy but she came to art by a scenic route.

She dropped out of a graphics course at one early stage in her career, in favour of an apprenticeship as a sign writer, brightening up shops and solicitor's offices with gold leaf lettering.

The sign writing drew her from recession racked Ireland to London in the 1980s.

While in England she added antique restoration to her repertoire before returning to County Wexford to work at the short lived Model World project in Newtownmountkennedy.

'You have to turn your hand to anything,' muses Yanny on her zig-zag journey through the world of art which brought her finally to making the images for which she is best known.

'I always loved plants and I always loved weeds, the things that eke out a living.'

She renders them on to paper through watercolour but she also dabbles in 'verre églomise', applying paint to glass, examples of which are on view to the general public at the Wicklow national park centre in Trooperstown.

Her particular speciality is bog plants, she confides with a laugh: 'I tend to do a lot of work in the rain and I spend a lot of time on my knees.'

Lynn Stringer hails from Kilcoole and came late to the world of watercolours, enrolling in the fine arts course at the Dublin Institute of Technology at the age of 29 on the road to turning a hobby into a profession.

'I always felt that I had missed out not going to college,' she says of making the break after years of office work, 'and it always came back to art.'

The content of the course at DIT was a mixed blessing for one called to realism, where much of the curriculum trained its blurry focus on abstract pieces and installations.

Then Lynn took part in a workshop given by plant illustrator Susan Sex and her die was cast: 'I fell in love with the whole botanical thing fifteen years ago and I am doing it ever since.'

Holly's mother Katherine Nixon is a well-known painter and sculptor, while Yanny's mother was an artist.

In Lynn's case, however, the inspiration from the previous generation came through the garden and the family's sheer love of plants.

She still grows vegetables and flowers, which she sells at the community market at Newcastle each Saturday along with beautiful prints of the images created from her art work.

She recalls how she began to make the critics sit up and take notice of her talent with a solo show in Dundrum in 2007 before heading off to the US and a year-long residency in Vermont, which was a great experience.

She later submitted six paintings to the Royal Horticultural Society's exhibition at the Lindley Library in Westminster in 2013 and returned from London with the silver medal, which confirmed her reputation.

The botanical art practised by the Wicklow trio draws on a tradition which is many centuries old, as Yanny points out.

Detailed drawings and paintings of plants were essential in days gone by for the transmission of knowledge.

The work of artists assisted in identifying plants which were useful in medicine and cookery, while making sure that the poisonous ones were avoided.

Though modern practitioners often use cameras to assist them, these three women are adamant that a good painting is more valuable than any photographic image.

'Paintings show more of a plant than you see in a photo,' says Yanny. 'Yes, there is a place for photography but a painting is much more useful.'

What can be captured with one click of the button on the camera can never catch the sort of detail created by the skilled artist who spends 50 to 60 hours.

'And people like the paintings!' chips in Lynn.

Perhaps the value of the brushstroke is enhanced because the artists simply enjoy what they are doing and the pleasure is somehow reflected in their watercolours.

And the joy which people obtain from their work is one which others seek to emulate, with Holly, Yanny and Lynn all in demand as art tutors.

'There is a part of you that needs to go out and meet people,' ponders Holly.

The quest for like-minded company is fulfilled in part by the Irish Society of Botanical Artists in which they are leading lights.

The society has a mix of professional and amateur members, around 140 of them in all.

The trio are also heavily involved in Bloom, the hugely successful and popular annual gardening event in the Phoenix Park.

While most of the action in the park revolves around living plants and the hardware associated with gardens but they have proven that there is a place for art on the programme.

Four years ago, Lynn approached Bloom boss Gary Graham and persuaded him that an exhibition of paintings would not only be relevant but would also be a crowd pleaser.

As a result of her initiative, the fourth show in the series open this Thursday, June 2 with 56 works selected for display at Bloom, including contributions from Holly (a rose), Lynn (a magnolia) and Yanny (sycamore seeds and rose hips).

By the way, Yanny is planning to present an exhibition at the Olivier Cornet gallery in Dublin in October.

And watch out too for an exhibition due to take place at the end of this year of illustrations of Irish garden plants, the result of more than a decade of collaboration between growers and the artists. Such fine work cannot be rushed.

Bray People