Stella Ross-Craig

'Unrivalled' botanical illustrator


Stella Ross-Craig, botanical artist: born Aldershot, Hampshire 19 March 1906; staff, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew 1929-60; married Robert Sealy (died 2000); died Isleworth, Middlesex 6 February 2006.

Stella Ross-Craig was one of the foremost botanical illustrators of the 20th century. "In the making of scientific black-and-white line illustrations," wrote Wilfred Blunt, the ultimate authority on botanical art, "Stella Ross-Craig stands unrivalled, for she combines sound botanical knowledge with sure draughtsmanship."

Her best-known achievement was the monumental project to produce a standard set of illustrations for the entire British wild flora. The incomparable work, published in 31 parts over a quarter of a century from 1948 under the title Drawings of British Plants, is still the best series of drawings on British plants ever made, even though it has long been out of print and is now a collector's item. Looking back on it, Ross-Craig claimed the work had been fun, although she admitted that the thought of doing "all those little hairs and things" gave her the shudders.

Back in 1947, the only complete set of published wild-flower drawings were the thumbnail-sized sketches in the standard British Flora by Bentham and Hooker which had served three generations. "Previous illustrations were so small," recalled Stella Ross-Craig. "I thought something larger with more dissections would be a good idea."

With a scientific eye for detail, Ross-Craig produced drawings that were a revelation to many: they formed a scrupulously accurate botanical portrait including every diagnostic part - leaflets, petals, pods, seeds, capsules, stamens and carpels, and, in some cases, even roots. Every hair and bristle was shown.

Each of the eventual 1,300 drawings took Stella Ross-Craig two days to complete, at a steady rate of two drawings per week. She drew the first - "one of the buttercups" - in 1947 and the last in 1973. The work might have taken longer still, had not the grasses and sedges been in the meantime covered by other publications. The work was done almost entirely in her spare time and was a true labour of love. After admiring the first completed drawings, the then Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, Sir Edward Salisbury, introduced her to a publisher, George Bell & Sons. Stella dedicated the work to her husband and botanical companion, Robert Sealy.

In addition to the unsurpassed Drawings, Stella Ross-Craig illustrated over 3,000 species of plants over her lifetime, all of them in watercolour or line (she disliked oils as "too messy"). She contributed 333 colour plates to Curtis's Botanical Magazine, the journal of the Royal Horticultural Society, and some 400 more austere illustrations for Hooker's Icones Plantarum. She also illustrated The Flora of Tropical East Africa (1963) and painted a series of 60 orchid portraits for Gerry Colman (of mustard fame) which is now in the collections at Kew.

Although of Scottish ancestry, Stella Ross-Craig was born in Aldershot, Hampshire. Her father, a chemist, was a keen botanist and Stella learned her flowers on country walks with him in Hampshire, Surrey and Kent, where they also lived for a while. She was also taught to paint by her brother, producing her first flower pictures at the age of four. At 18, she won a scholarship to Thanet Art School and also attended evening classes in botany at Chelsea Polytechnic.

In 1929, aged 23, she joined the staff at Kew Gardens where she remained until her retirement over 30 years later in 1960. There she met her future husband, the botanist Robert Sealy. They lived a few hundred yards from the entrance to Kew. As much as possible, they spent their weekends in the countryside looking for wild flowers, often in the company of another Kew botanist, Bill Burtt. Many of the specimens they collected were put to use by Stella for the Drawings and other illustrations.

Modest and retiring, Stella Ross-Craig never sought publicity for her pictures. "I didn't want to sell them," she explained. "I just wanted them to be done as records." Although her work was greatly admired in botanical circles, it was little known in the wider art world. It was not until 2001 that an exhibition of her work was organised at Inverleith House, Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh, and moved to Kew Gardens as part of the summer festival in 2003.

In 1999 she became only the sixth person to receive the Kew Award medal for outstanding achievement in botany. She also received the Gold Veitch Memorial Medal from the Royal Horticultural Society in 2002. Volume 182 (1978-80) of Curtis's Botanical Magazine was dedicated to her and Sealy.

Peter Marren

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