A wise man once told me that crafting quality in order to reach a desired goal takes “time and patience”.
I am often asked how long it takes to complete a painting. To create the quality and sought-after jewel-like finish in these works; the answer is, ‘a long time’. Hours, days, weeks and months; sometimes just for one painting. Setting the pace is all-important; it has to be steady and consistent, and progress is always slow. It may take several hours or days to realise just a few centimetres and it can’t be rushed; each minute stroke has to be applied with extreme accuracy and is especially difficult with intricate linear patterns. I apply the paint with a very small sable brush slowly building subtle shifts in tone and colour to describe their form. I use only the most transparent of watercolour and its consistency is crucial in order to retain the luminosity of this Kelmscott vellum. Its smooth surface is non-absorbent, it repels the paint; the brush must hold only a little fluid whilst at the same time allowing a smooth stroke. It takes such tenacity and it demands the utmost respect for the finest of artists’ materials. These arduous technical issues are further compounded by the complex visual nature of these tulips; it takes great patience; this is a labour of love.
Fiona Strickland has long been drawn to tulips, finding their colour, shape, and form visually engaging, and the history of their depiction in art intellectually fascinating.
In undertaking this exhibition devoted to the Tulipa she follows in the footsteps of illustrious artistic forebears, including painters of the Dutch Golden Age such as Ambrosius Bosschaert, Balthasar van der Ast, and Jacob Marrel, whose seventeenth-century Tulip Book she travelled to study at close-hand in the Rijksmuseum in 2016. Exploring the subject of the tulip, so integral to the history of Dutch art, also allows Strickland (who lives and works in Scotland) to reconnect with her ancestral heritage: it is unsurprising to learn that her grandmother, who moved from the Netherlands to Scotland as a child, was a marvellous gardener who instilled a love of plants in her young granddaughter by allowing her to visit the sanctuary of her tulip-filled greenhouse.
Another important artistic influence for Strickland is Dame Elizabeth Blackadder, under whom she studied at Edinburgh College of Art, and whose freedom of expression in the depiction of tulips she particularly admires. Of course, no artist painting the tulip today could do so without acknowledging the revolutionary impact of fellow Scottish artist Rory McEwen upon botanical art in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Strickland first saw his work as a student in Edinburgh, and in this exhibition embraces the challenge of depicting a subject which has become so deeply linked to his legacy, seeking to observe it anew and find personal meaning in it.
As an artist she is driven by the desire to extend her knowledge, always asking herself “how can I take this further?” In her choice of subject Strickland aims to inspire an emotive response, and a feeling of connection with the viewer. Often depicting flowers from an unusual viewpoint or at turning points in their life cycle, her paintings act as portraits of individual flowers, rather than scientific representations of a species.
The small scale of her works, their jewel-like application of paint, and the use of vellum as a support connects them with the tradition of portrait miniatures, permeating them with a sense of intimacy and preciousness that is wholly appropriate for the subject: few flowers could compete with the tulip in the richness of symbolic meaning with which it has been imbued in art history, and few commodities could rival the financial frenzy of seventeenth-century ‘Tulip Mania’, and the enormous value once ascribed to its bulbs.
On a technical level this body of work, created over more than two years, represents a virtuoso feat of painting in watercolour on vellum, a challenging medium due to its non-absorbent surface. Using the most transparent rating of Winsor and Newton Professional Watercolours, Strickland paints meticulously and slowly, using a ‘dry brush’ technique to layer multiple translucent and subtly different shades to suggest variations in temperature and tone. This technique allows light to penetrate though the paint surface, suffusing it with a glowing quality as it reflects from the off-white surface of the vellum below, akin in technique and feel to a precious medieval enamel.
Many of the tulips depicted in the exhibition are English Florists’ Tulips, grown by the Wakefield and North of England Tulip Society. Impossible to buy commercially, these tulips are characterised by the complex and vibrant ‘broken’ patterns of their petals, the observation of which represents another challenge to the artist. Founded in the early nineteenth century, the Society is the only association of its kind to have survived to the present day. Like Rory McEwen before her, having learned of its work Strickland became a member, and was delighted to be gifted prize- winning tulips from its annual show to depict in her work. Carefully transporting them home in the brown beer bottles in which they are exhibited, after painting these perfect specimens Strickland could not bear to part with them, and has preserved their dried forms in her studio.
Among the specimens depicted in this exhibition is the Tulipa ‘Rory McEwen’, a Bybloemen Flame tulip that was named in McEwen’s honour. It is particularly fitting that Strickland has painted the flower on one of McEwen’s own sheets of Kelmscott vellum, which were gifted to The Hunt Institute of Botanical Art by the McEwen family following his death in 1982. Fiona Strickland now joins the select number of contemporary artists who have in turn been given this vellum by the Institute, and who carry forward McEwen’s challenge of engaging with and continually reinvigorating the tradition of botanical art.
Written by Rebecca Wall [rebeccawall.net]