Kew opens the world's first gallery for botanical art

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The Independent Culture

The state-of-the-art glass, timber and stone building that will be opened today at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, by Sir David Attenborough might have carefully controlled light, temperature and humidity levels, but it is not intended to house rare plants.

Instead, it will be home to an extensive collection of botanical drawings which is going on show to the public for the first time.

Until now, Kew Gardens' collection of 200,000 botanical drawings and manuscripts have only been available to experts and researchers who have had to apply for permission to study the works.

The Shirley Sherwood Gallery is the world's first purpose-built space for botanical drawings – many of which are extremely delicate watercolours on paper and vellum.

Walters and Cohen, the architects, were given a brief to create a space that would protect the art works with dim light levels, a constant temperature of 21C and 55 per cent humidity.

In the opening exhibition, which runs from Saturday until 19 October, botanical drawings dating back as far as the early 1300s will be displayed alongside contemporary botanical paintings from the collection of Shirley Sherwood, who has acquired about 700 works by 223 artists since the beginning of the 1990s.

Some of the works depict endangered plants, such as the American artist Carol Woodin's painting of the rare orchid Phragmipedium kovachii, which she travelled to Peru to capture.

Laura Giuffrida, the curator, said botanic art has flourished in recent years. She said: "It was something people weren't really embracing as an art form. Dr Sherwood has done a lot to stimulate that interest."

In an attempt to make the gallery as environmentally friendly as possible, the architects have installed bore holes in the basement, which use the natural temperature of the earth to heat or cool the building.