Botanical paintings inspired by Darwin’s confidant

The works at Halesworth Gallery mark the bicentenary of Joseph Dalton Hooker’s birth

Sarcococca hookeriana var digyna (sweet box) by Elaine Searle, £1,200
Sarcococca hookeriana var digyna (sweet box) by Elaine Searle, £1,200

Joseph Dalton Hooker, a 19th-century director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, was a great friend of Charles Darwin. He worked on the plants Darwin collected aboard the Beagle, and himself visited the likes of India, South Africa, the United States and Antarctica to bring back cuttings to the UK.

Nepenthes x hookeriana (Hooker’s pitcher plant) by Anna Lu, £480
Nepenthes x hookeriana (Hooker’s pitcher plant) by Anna Lu, £480

Two hundred years after the pioneering botanist’s birth, Suffolk’s Halesworth Gallery – in the town of the same name, where Hooker was born – is hosting an exhibition (July 1-19) of paintings inspired by his discoveries, as well as by plants named after him. The new work (from £250) comes from students of the Chelsea School of Botanical Art and members of Amicus Botanicus (its alumni), and like Hooker’s discoveries they hail from all corners of the globe.

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Nepenthes x hookeriana (Hooker’s pitcher plant; £480) is painted in watercolour by Anna Lu, and shows the natural hybrid plant found commonly in Borneo, Malaysia and Sumatra. The spectacular crimson flowers of Crinodendron hookerianum (Chilean lantern tree; £395) have been painted by Fiona Kane, while the creamy white flowers and dark berries of Sarcococca hookeriana var digyna (sweet box; £1,200) are captured by Chelsea School of Botanical Art course director Elaine Searle in watercolour and graphite.

Sarcococca hookeriana var humilis (dwarf sweet box) by Jeanne Debons, £525
Sarcococca hookeriana var humilis (dwarf sweet box) by Jeanne Debons, £525

“The paintings in the exhibition not only illustrate the species, but highlight the curiosity and endeavour of a botanical artist,” says Helen Allen, founder and principal of the School. “Creating a botanical painting is an artist’s personal journey towards communicating the structure, essence, colours and details of that plant. A botanical painting takes many hours to complete, from research to procuring specimens and all the stages in drawing and painting. These beautiful and accurately portrayed images will last forever and are a permanent record of plants that at some point may become extinct.”

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Hooker discovered Salix hookeriana (coastal willow) while he was exploring California in 1877, and it is here depicted (£350) by Lyn Sykes. Other works appearing include the watercolour Sarcococca hookeriana var humilis (dwarf sweet box; £525) by Jeanne Debons, and Gaye Willcox Norman’s Drepanostachyum hookerianum “Damarapa” (candy cane bamboo; £995), a plant Hooker introduced into the UK in the 1840s.

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