Giving flower power a second chance

MANY of us remember reluctant childhood trips to museums and galleries. This was Great Art, we were told, but one shipwreck looked very much like another disaster on jagged rocks, one millpond seemed much like another pool of murky water, and one overweight cherub was one more than you really wanted to see.

MANY of us remember reluctant childhood trips to museums and galleries. This was Great Art, we were told, but one shipwreck looked very much like another disaster on jagged rocks, one millpond seemed much like another pool of murky water, and one overweight cherub was one more than you really wanted to see. And what was it with all those angels?

Then there were the paintings of flowers. Nice, but you could see the real thing on your grandma's table when you went round for Sunday afternoon tea.

Grow up and you can find your views on art are still shaped by those early experiences. Which is a bit of a shame.

With luck, a book by Josephine Walpole might persuade some readers to give art a second chance - the floral variety at least. For it celebrates British flower painting from four centuries and gives biographical details for nearly 1,000 artists.

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Painting flowers has long been one of the author's major interests, but her artistic endeavours have been limited by circumstance: initially, as a young woman, by bowing to parental pressure and training as an accountant, then by the demands of running a business with her husband, and latterly by osteoporosis from the early 1990s.

“There was no way I could paint in the way I wanted to paint,” explains Josephine. “Flower painting is very immediate. If you don't get flowers down in outline, so you can work on them, they change.

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“I have argued this toss with several people who call flower painting 'still life'. They are not still life. Flowers are never still; they're growing all the time. Look at tulips: they do all sorts of bendy things.”

Happily, writing about art has been something of an outlet. A History and Dictionary of British Flower Painters 1650 - 1950 is her 12th book. Previous work includes a biography on portrait painter and muralist Anna Zinkeisen; a book on Suffolk artist Leonard Squirrell, who trained at the Ipswich School of Art, and a publication on Irish landscape painter Kenneth Webb. Josephine has also written about artists from the Norwich School.

So what would she say to convince those doubters that paintings of flowers are worth a look?

“I think possibly it would be answered by a lady who said to Stuart Somerville” - a Suffolk artist to whom we'll return - “'How beautiful you've made it look', without realising it's not just the artist. Stuart said 'I didn't make them look like that. God made them look like that. I only enable you to see them.' And I think that was his philosophy: for other people to see, through his eyes, the beauty he saw in flowers.

“Many people tend not to notice the essential beauty of a flower. And then it suddenly comes to them. 'Well, I'd like to have that on my wall to look at it - and I'll have a look at those flowers again, when I see them.' I think that's part of the inspiration; you've got to ram it home to them, almost. We don't stop enough and stare.”

Actually, it seems that enthusiasts of flower painting, once hooked, are fans for life.

Josephine's book concludes with the thought that the genre's popularity is unlikely to wane. “It never has; reproductions of the seventeenth century masters are still in favour when most other subjects are changing with the wind and, for my own part, in twenty-five years of running an art gallery, a good period covering two major recessions during which picture sales almost died, a good flower study would always sell.

“In the years ahead, love of flowers and flower paintings will still endure long after the piles of bricks, sheep pickled in formaldehyde and unmade beds have been forgotten.”

The EADT asked Josephine to pick four favourite flower painters. She chose three from the traditional element and one, Rodella Purves, from the botanical side.

What sets them apart?

“Botanical is totally different. For a start, the medium is different. Most of the traditional painters work in oil - not all, but most of them - and botanical painting is watercolour, sometimes gouache (a kind of opaque watercolour). They are painting for real specimen studies: single flowers. The paintings at Kew are almost all botanical.”

On why she chose Rodella Purves, she says: “I think the accuracy of detail and colour, combined with a more decorative touch as well. Some botanical paintings are not decorative, because they're produced for scientific purposes where scientists will be looking at the stamen and other areas of plant structure, which the average person wouldn't be that interested in, but in some cases they manage to combine botanical accuracy and also convey the beauty of the flower.”

What do you mean by decorative touch?

“Well, most botanical things are not the sort of paintings people go into a gallery and buy to hang on the wall, unfortunately. Traditional flower paintings - however regrettable it may be - people buy as decorative objects to suit them and their house. Personally, I've got one or two botanical paintings and I'm quite happy to hang them on the all; but that's personal interest.”

Stuart Somerville is the first name on the list, and the first of the more traditional painters. He moved to Newbourne Hall just after the war and later taught Josephine.

“The philosophy of art interested him tremendously. He was a brilliant and clever man. He could almost size up a person from his paintings, and was very knowledgeable about other painters.

“He made flower paintings real. So many flower paintings are horribly stylised - technically beautifully painted, but stylised.”

He was a realist, then?

“I would say naturalist. His whole approach was to show people what flowers were really like - people who don't stop to look properly at flowers. If they see them through painters' eyes, they're looking at things they didn't realise they were there. His paintings are very, very lively, and that's what it's all about.

“Another thing he was firmly convinced about was that it was an intense and passionate love for the subject that makes a painter.”

Bennett Oates is similar, “though maybe he is more concerned than Stuart with composition. But - look at those leaves, in reproduction - he really is a world-class painter. He has a beautiful sense of colour and composition”.

Cecil Kennedy grabs the final slot. “Particularly I admire his white flowers and his very clever way of reproducing glass and the texture of containers. I think it was Mrs Kennedy who was a flower-arranger, and used to make arrangements for him, which to some extent puts him in a more stylised genre, but nevertheless they are very beautifully painted.”

How did he manage to capture those white flowers so delicately? “Well, that would be very difficult to say. Probably, Stuart made that point, didn't he? Perhaps Kennedy was very fond of white flowers and so painted them so well. I do think that if you feel real affinity with your subject, you do it properly - and if you know how to look.

“Stuart always used to say 'Before I teach people how to paint, I teach them how to look.' And that's very true. Sometimes you can make a comment to people about something, and they can't see it. If you know how, you train your eye to look, don't you?”

With today's busy life, we tend to take for granted the beauty under our noses.

“Exactly. Back to WH Davies, isn't it? 'Time to stand and stare . . .'”

Bearing in mind your love of the genre, this book seems a labour of love?

“To some extent, yes, it is special - but it's been produced so well. I always maintain that where an author gets recognition for a book - an art book in particular - nobody stops to think it's the publisher and the printers who have made the book what it is. They're not given enough credit.”

A History and Dictionary of British Flower Painters 1650 - 1950 is published by Antique Collectors' Club at £35. ISBN 1-85149-504-5.

SHE travelled via an unconventional route, but eventually Josephine Walpole became immersed in the world of art.

Born in Suffolk, at Cockfield, she went to school in Bury St Edmunds and then moved to Norfolk in her mid teens. “I was always drawing as a child. I think children develop their interests in the way that they are going to continue.” Young Josephine spent hours looking at paintings in Norwich museums.

However, she was pursued to study accountancy. “Parents didn't think that art was any sort of career; it had to be something with a steady job, a good pension, and preferably in one of the real professions. It was OK, though. I quite enjoyed figurework.”

So Josephine worked in accountancy and her husband in surveying. They moved to Suffolk and then, in the early 1960s, “We threw it all up!”

They were asked by the owners of a Felixstowe bookshop if they'd like to hold the fort during a holiday period. “We enjoyed it so much that when they came to retire, which was not long after, we moved heaven and earth to raise the money to take it.”

That was in 1963.

“I had, over the previous few years in the late 1950s, been going in such spare time as I had to Stuart Somerville, because by that time I'd made my work part-time. I had met him socially and he said 'Let me see some of your work.' I showed him odd pieces that I'd done and thought he would be very critical - and up to a point he was. But he said 'I'd like to prove to you that you can do better things.'

“I'd always wanted to paint flowers - in fact I had, but not professionally - and I had three years with Stuart. I learned so much; not just about painting but about the history and philosophy of art.

“We had, in our unwisdom, thought 'Oh well, when we have our own business you'll be able to do more painting . . .' We also introduced a framing service; partly to accommodate mine and partly to add to the income of the business. That absolutely snowballed.

“It went on from there until the owner of a gallery in Woodbridge phoned up one night and asked if we wanted it. She was packing up and gave us first refusal. Right! Start scraping the barrel again (for the money). That was in 1969.” They ran the gallery until the early-to-mid 1990s.

“Of course, I was running exhibitions and got so involved with other people's work that it took over. I was quite happy with that.” There was a well-received Leonard Squirrell centenary exhibition, for example.

While the practicalities of life and running a business limited Josephine's opportunities for painting, her work was exhibited - in London, for instance, and at the Woodbridge Gallery long before she owned it.

With British Flower Painters published, it's now full steam ahead with her next book - Suffolk Artists - which will be a companion volume to Art and Artists of the Norwich School.

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