A story of art, gender and science unearthed in Strauss & Co’s June sale of botanical art

A story of art, gender and science unearthed in Strauss & Co’s June sale of botanical art

27 May 2021

Strauss & Co are very fortunate to be offering works from an important collection of botanical paintings and prints by some of the most significant South African women botanical artists.

The botanical artists include Thalia Lincoln, Auriol Batten, Barbara Jeppe and Gillian Condy, who was the resident artist at the South African Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) in Pretoria from 1982 until her recent retirement. The selection of botanical art, which has been de-accessioned from a major financial institution’s corporate collection as part of a strategic repositioning towards contemporary art, will form a special session of Strauss & Co’s June online-only sale, which runs from 31 May to 7 June 2021.

“South Africa has a very strong history of botanical art dating back hundreds of years to the start of the colonial era when intrepid plant hunters and collectors gathered living and dried specimens and produced illustrations of the wealth of southern African plants, then unknown in Europe, to send back to scientific institutions, royal collections, physic gardens and amateur enthusiasts on the continent,” says Hazel Cuthbertson, a research specialist at Strauss & Co.

“Women artists have always been particularly well represented in botanical art because for centuries it was the only form of art practice that was considered ‘suitable for ladies’ in patriarchal European societies, and even in eras when women had very few options, women artists such as Maria Sibylla Merian (1647 – 1717) and Elizabeth Blackwell (1707 – 1758) were among the most highly regarded practitioners of botanical art internationally.”

A particular highlight of the botanical art session is the 11 original watercolours by Ellaphie Ward-Hillhorst (estimate R3 000 – 5 000) produced for the monograph on the genus Gasteria written by Ernst van Jaarsveld (Fernwood, 1994), an internationally recognized expert in the field of succulents. These aloe-like plants, found mainly in the coastal and semi-arid regions of the Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga, are endemic to South Africa, and this collaboration between botanist and artist was a significant milestone in botanical publishing in South Africa at the time.

Auriol Batten’s striking Scadoxus puniceus, commonly known as the paintbrush lily, a stand-out work on the sale (estimate R3 000 – 5 000) dominates the foreground of the composition with its blazing reds and oranges, while the artist’s characteristic monochromatic pencil sketch in the background refers to the likely habitat of the plant in the wild. Three beautifully rendered depictions of irises on the sale (estimate R3 000 – 5 000) were among the 39 life-size watercolour paintings the artist Barbara Jeppe produced of irises from around the world for her monograph on this flamboyant genus. Collectors of cycads will delight in the editioned print of Douglas Goode’s imposing Encephalartos transvenosus, or Modjadji palm (estimate R2 000 – 3000), a protected plant, with a localised distribution in Limpopo, that is considered sacred to the Lobedu people and their female dynasty of Rain Queens.

Flower studies are a major genre at auction, with significant prices achieved for work by Irma Stern, Maggie Laubscher and William Kentridge. This is however the first time Strauss & Co is offering works by important botanical artists such as Batten, Goode, Jeppe and Ward-Hillhorst. Botanical art is a cross-over between art and science because the discipline requires that the works not only be visually appealing and technically adept, but they must also be scientifically accurate so that the particular species of plant depicted is unambiguously identifiable and its unique characteristics and typical growth habit are recorded and communicated effectively.

Unlike photography which captures a single moment, botanical art might show flowers, leaves, fruit and seeds – which would not necessarily all appear on the plant at the same time in the wild – in a single illustration to convey as much information about the plant as possible. For this reason, botanical art had not yet been superseded by photography in botanical publications.

Many of the artists represented on the Strauss & Co sale have previously had their work published in Flowering Plants of Africa, the world-renowned botanical journal published in South Africa by SANBI. This venerable journal, which celebrates its centenary this year, continues to “convey to the reader the beauty and variety of form of the African flora, to stimulate an interest in the study, conservation and cultivation of African plants, and to advance the science of botany as well as botanical art”, according to the SANBI website.

The botanical art session is just one of the sessions of paintings, sculpture, ceramics, works on paper and fine wine on Strauss & Co’s upcoming June online-only sale, which opens at 8.00am on Monday 31 May and closes at 8.00pm on 7 June 2021.