Mary Grierson: Floral artist celebrated as one of the most distinguished in her field

 

In 1960 a woman applied for the post of exhibitions officer at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. She didn't get the job, but was able to show her interviewers her portfolio of flower paintings, and was engaged instead as an artist in the herbarium. This was Mary Grierson, soon to become recognised as one of the world's most distinguished botanical artists.

Her parents came from Dumfries, but she, the youngest of three children, was born in Bangor, North Wales. She went to the Bangor County School for Girls, where she later self-deprecatingly claimed that apart from drawing and botany she was a hopeless dunce, and in 1930 was awarded the diploma of the Royal Drawing Society in London: this was the first confirmation of her talent.

She spent 1931 teaching English to a family in Germany, but since her mother insisted that she make a career in confectionery, she went to study at Battersea Polytechnic and got a job as a confectioner in Llandudno. Her parents' illness induced her to return home to care for them; when her father died, she and her mother moved to Dumfries, where she managed a local restaurant.

War service in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force opened new horizons. She served as a flight officer in a photographic reconnaissance unit, examining photographs taken after British air-raids on Germany to assess the damage done. This, she said, was a job needing sharp eyes and tireless concentration, qualities she would later put to different use. After demobilisation she joined the PR department of De Havilland, where she was in charge of photographs, and from there moved to Hunting Aero Surveys, who in 1957 sent her for a week's course in pen and ink drawing at the field studies centre at Flatford Mill.

She was now in her forties andundecided about her future, but when John Nash, brother of the painter Paul and a significant artist in his own right, was appointed to run the Flatford centre, he became her mentor, and for 10 years she attended his courses. After getting her job at Kew she repaid her debt to Flatford by running a course there every year from 1966 to 1983.

In 1966 she received her first gold medal for flower painting from the Royal Horticultural Society, and the following year she was invited to contribute designs for two postage stamps: a primrose for the 9d and a violet for the 1s.9d. In 1970 the Israeli Nature Authority invited her to paint the flora of the Negev and Sinai deserts.

Retirement from Kew in 1972 allowed her to accept more private commissions, including a series of paintings of endangered plants for the World Wild Life Fund archives, and a major series of tulip drawings for the Van Tubergen Nurseries at Haarlem which were eventually purchased by Kew. Spink of St. James's regularly exhibited and sold her paintings. Two of her exhibitions on the flora of hedgerows and coasts involved her in driving to remote places where specimens could be found, then hurrying back to her flat in Richmond to paint them before they drooped.

In 1975 she began to create a record of plants in the National Tropical Garden in Hawaii, which culminated in Green's A Hawaiian Florilegium. Her impressive list of publications includes many award-winning monographs; the honours which gave her7 most pleasure were the Veitch Memorial Medal of the RHS, and later their Victoria Medal of Honour. The largest collection of her paintings is at Kew, with museums and art galleries all over the world possessing examples of her work.

She may have inherited her talent from her mother, who painted in oils, but she herself preferred the delicacy and freshness of watercolours. Her pen and ink dissections in Hooker's Icones Plantarum reveal not only her skill in drawing but also her botanical expertise which enabled her to recreate plants from dried specimens: some of her dissections would include a pen or pencil image of the plant in its entirety, and her compositions always reflect an instinctive sense of design.

The landscapes she painted on small ivory tablets revealed the deftness of a miniaturist; she also made embroidered pictures. Her extraordinary stamina allowed her to work a long day – often very swiftly before a newly-picked plant died – with only brief coffee breaks. Left-handed, she relished the irony of the foreign admirer who asked permission to kiss the hand that produced such beautiful work, and took her right. She hadn't the heart to tell him it should have been the other. She inspired many other flower painters, and died months short of her 100th birthday.

Ray Desmond

Mary Grierson, floral artist: born Bangor 27 September 1912; died Kingston 30 January 2012.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Madonna is not in Twitter's good books after describing her album leak as 'artistic rape and terrorism'
music
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hughes (James Nesbitt) after his son Olly disappeared on a family holiday in France
tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice candidates Roisin Hogan, Solomon Akhtar, Mark Wright, Bianca Miller, Daniel Lassman
tvReview: But which contestants got the boot?
Arts and Entertainment
Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels ride again in Dumb and Dumber To
filmReview: Dumb And Dumber To was a really stupid idea
News
people

Jo from Northern Ireland was less than impressed by Russell Brand's attempt to stage a publicity stunt

Extras
indybest
Sport
Scunthorpe goalkeeper Sam Slocombe (left) is congratulated by winning penalty taker Miguel Llera (right)
football
Life and Style
A woman walks by a pandal art installation entitled 'Mars Mission' with the figure of an astronaut during the Durga Puja festival in Calcutta, India
techHow we’ll investigate the existence of, and maybe move in with, our alien neighbours
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Ian McKellen tempts the Cookie Monster
tvSir Ian McKellen joins the Cookie Monster for a lesson on temptation
News
i100
Travel
Tourists bask in the sun beneath the skyscrapers of Dubai
travelBritish embassy uses social media campaign to issue travel advice for festive holiday-makers in UAE
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Qualified Accountant

£30000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fast growing cloud accounting...

Recruitment Genius: Shift Supervisor

£20000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to recent expansion and gro...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

Day In a Page

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum