Remarkable drawings completed a century ago have been revealed for the first time in a new book

The drawings were completed over 100 years ago by one of Britain’s greatest botanical artists

Lilian Snelling- The Rhododendron and primula drawings book. Credit: Saltire News
Lilian Snelling- The Rhododendron and primula drawings book. Credit: Saltire News

REMARKABLE drawings completed a century ago in Edinburgh by one of Britain’s greatest ever botanical artists have been revealed for the first time in a new book.

Lilian Snelling was born in St Mary Cray in Kent, but travelled to Scotland in 1915 to take up a position as artist at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE).

Over more than five years in the Capital, she illustrated the collections of the great plant hunters.

Lilian Snelling- The Rhododendron and primula drawings book. Credit: Saltire News

Now, a book published by the RBGE has revealed her story; how she was given her opportunity in Edinburgh after all of the Garden’s male staff were called to fight in the Great War and how, for a century, her incredible work has gone largely unheralded.

Lilian Snelling: the Rhododendron and Primula Drawings, by RBGE Research Associate Dr Henry J Noltie, also reveals many of her exquisite botanical artworks for the first time.

Dr Noltie, a researcher and taxonomist at the RBGE for more than 30 years, said: “Among the greatest treasures of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh Library is the collection of 430 botanical watercolours, sepia studies and pencil drawings made by Lilian Snelling.

“She is probably the most important British botanical artist of the first half of the 20th century.”

Advertisement

Hide Ad
Lilian Snelling- The Rhododendron and primula drawings book. Credit: Saltire News

Snelling arrived in Scotland during an era of national crisis. All 73 able-bodied men among the RBGE’s 110 staff left to fight in the First World War battlefields.

Despite the war in Europe, the collecting of exotic plants continued on the other side of the world.

Plant hunters including George Forrest – now often referred to as “Scotland’s Indiana Jones of the plant world” – sent back a deluge of material from the Sino-Himalaya to meet the demands of British garden-owners and nurseries. At the RBGE, these plants were scientifically recorded and

Advertisement

Hide Ad

described, many of them new to science.

Snelling, who worked for the Garden’s Regius Keeper, Isaac Bayley Balfour, established a reputation as a gifted and prolific botanical illustrator. Through her refined technique, her work was increasingly recognised for its taxonomic value, useful equally to scientists, collectors and gardeners.

Such is their enduring quality that some of these illustrations are still used in the RBGE’s teaching of botanical art, as outstanding exemplars of observation and technique and skillful artwork.

Dr Noltie, an authority on the garden’s herbarium and archives, said: “At one level the drawings represent a fascinating collaboration between artist and scientist, but they are more than this and their context is a fascinating one.

Advertisement

Hide Ad

“The brilliantly coloured drawings of fragile flowers bearing the date 1918 are the more poignant because of the horrors of World War One. Balfour himself lost his only son at Gallipoli in 1915, and his subsequent frenzy of description of new rhododendron species can perhaps be seen as part

of a strategy to assuage his grief. As he wrote, ‘work is not a conqueror at such times, but it is an anodyne’.”

Snelling painted the rhododendron and primula specimens mainly from life, but also from dried herbarium specimens.

She captured colour, texture and microscopic details using an innovative and economical technique. Her use of colour particularly conveyed the saturation of rhododendron petal colours.

Advertisement

Hide Ad

Dr Noltie said that, although Snelling made some 430 watercolours and drawings of plants at the garden between 1915 and 1921, there was no known contemporary tribute to her talents.

He added: “This says as much about the lowly status of female botanical artists in male-dominated institutions as it does about Snelling’s character.

“It seems astonishing that of the numerous botanists whose work she illuminated and helped to communicate not one thought to name even a single species for her.”

Lilian Snelling: the rhododendron and primula drawings, by HJ Noltie is published by the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, available from rbgeshop.org, priced £9.99