“I don’t make fake flowers. I make sculpture,” says Vladimir Kanevsky, the Ukrainian artist who has been fashioning spectacular inflorescences from his New Jersey studio for close to 30 years. His renderings of hollyhocks and hydrangeas, roses and lilacs are lifelike, but the ultimate aim of his arrangements is not realism. “My flowers are not botanically correct – to an extent they’re a kind of still-life,” he says. Skirting the fine line between painting and sculpture, it’s perhaps this balancing act between nature and artifice, imagination and imitation that renders his creations so compelling.
Kanevsky, who began his career as an architect before practising figurative sculpture, moved to the United States from the Soviet Union in 1989. “I needed to make some money, so I started experimenting with ceramics,” he says. Initial efforts fell flat. “They would come out of the kiln looking like pancakes.” Gradually, he evolved the intricate technique – handpainting the fragile porcelain flowers and forging copper stems rooted inside pots of terracotta or trelliswork – that secured his first commission from New York-based interior designer Howard Slatkin. Before long, he was charged with filling Christian Dior’s Parisian home store with bespoke botanicals, while garnering a following of collectors from Bunny Mellon to Oscar de la Renta and Valentino.
Kanevsky remains at the peak of his artistic powers. In 2017, more than 50 of his posies and single-stem sculptures went on display inside the gilded rooms of The State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. He’s currently completing a series of amaryllis and hyacinth destined for the luxury e-commerce site Moda Operandi, whose trunk shows of his collections frequently sell out. Seen together in clusters of what he terms “critical mass”, Kanevsky’s potted sculptures take on an architectural quality that has a surprising connection to his previous incarnation as a Soviet city planner. “I deal with engineering problems every single day in my studio,” he says. “This is where my aesthetic comes from – the two can’t be separated. Porcelain just happens to be my new medium.”
Kanevsky believes that art in its highest form sits hand‑in-hand with science. “If you look at the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci, they’re about science and engineering,” he says. “Flowers are everywhere in architecture, from the stylised columns in Egyptian temples representing the papyrus flower to Roman architectural decor and the adornment of art nouveau. The artificial flowers at Harvard University [the famed Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plants] are among the best botanicals I’ve ever seen.”
The passion for botanicals born of science is reflected in the art market. London dealer Peter Petrou, who specialises in didactic curiosities, has seen a surge in interest from collectors in recent years. He cites Brendel’s botanical models made in Germany in the 19th century. “They were originally intended for study at universities and institutions, but they’re so visually arresting there are now collectors for them, particularly across Europe,” he says. When seven sets of Brendel models, crafted in materials ranging from papier-mâché to fine cane to feathers, were offered at Christie’s last January in an auction dedicated to 150 Petrou lots, many of them realised as much as £15,000. “They made ridiculous money,” says Petrou, who has been sourcing pieces since the 1980s. “They’re really desirable right now.”
Collectors drawn to Petrou’s botanical art range from a homeowner who filled her “exotic fairyland” bedroom with the bright botanicals to New Zealand-born jewellery designer Jessica McCormack, who has scattered them throughout her Mayfair store – many in among works from her art collector/diamantaire partner Michael Rosenfeld’s private collection. “I’ve gathered quite a few over the years,” says McCormack, who’s been buying pieces since 2006. “I love that these slightly weird objects designed as functional models have now evolved into art,” she says. “There’s something a bit peculiar about them that I find both interesting and beautiful.”
A similarly arresting tension lies at the heart of artist Emma Witter’s botanical configurations. After graduating in performance design from Central Saint Martins, Witter established a studio creating food sculpture and props for performative dinners. She soon realised she preferred the making to the performing. Things took an animalistic turn during an artistic residency at Mark Hix’s Tramshed restaurant in London’s Shoreditch, where she became entranced by oxtail bones – an obsession that quickly blossomed. “They looked so floral and so perfectly like orchids,” she says. “It seemed such a shame to throw them away. I wanted to make bouquets with them that were beautiful rather than pretty.”
Witter began sculpting bone bouquets, their sinuous beauty evocative of their corporeal origins. “It’s like working with driftwood,” says the artist, who recently completed a residency at the Sarabande Foundation established by the late Alexander McQueen. “It’s so soft you can easily manipulate it and yet it will last forever.” Guided by the natural symmetry of the material, a single garland might be intricately forged from chicken bone and turkey spine with pig’s teeth petals, presented in a copper-lined beef-shin vase. “People assume they’re made from plaster or porcelain. They often pull back when they discover it’s bone,” she says of the material, which she gathers from chef friends and local butchers. “I’m driven by a desire to respect the entire animal. Throughout history, bone ash has been used for furniture making, distilling wine and making bone china. I want to highlight its availability as a by-product as well as its beauty.”
Though Witter’s work has clear connections to the Victorian tradition of memento mori, its focus is on abundance rather than morbidity. “When you think about still-life paintings from the Dutch Golden Age, they often depict a skull beside nature’s bounty,” she says. To Witter, animal bones are a natural organic material that, like coral or seashells, is a poignant vestige of a life that is no more. “They’re a remembrance of a creature that’s gone,” she says. “But they also have fragility.”
However remarkable, human efforts to mimic the natural world are nothing new. Be it porcelain or paper, silk or bone, the art of flower making has deep historical roots. First flourishing in ancient Egypt and China, permanent botanicals also propagated in the royal courts of Europe, from Italy to Versailles, where they found favour during the time of Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette. There were over 4,000 flower makers registered in the 1891 census in botanically obsessed Victorian London. In the 1930s, when the great floral pioneer Constance Spry set up shop opposite New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel, she decked the homes of her elite Manhattan clientele with not just cabbage leaves and rhubarb stems but artificial flowers – investing them with fresh fashionability once again.
For Witter, the current vogue for botanical art taps into a wider resurgence of craft, as well as a deeply felt ecological concern. “Craft used to be the geekiest thing ever – now it’s so chic,” she says. “I think that’s partly because collectors want to have a direct relationship with the maker. As technology has become so advanced, there’s a move towards the handmade and a desire to see inside the studios of artists.” In the same vein, she believes it’s an attempt to preserve the planet while most are busy desecrating it.
The British jeweller Christopher Thompson Royds sees the allure of artistic blooms as an antidote to troubling times. “People are looking towards the simpler things in life,” says Thompson Royds, who takes the common wildflower – the lowliest of blossoms – and elevates it into wearable sculpture. “As an artist, you either protest or you try to celebrate the world we live in, including the preciousness of nature.” What started with necklaces inspired by pressed flowers and presented in folio boxes for display has developed into a series of gold flowers that blur the boundaries between jewels and decorative art. Each gilded stem stands on an oxidised brass base that can be exhibited on a mantelpiece or dressing table, with elements that cleverly deconstruct like a jewellery jigsaw to form buttercup earrings or a daisy-chain necklace.
“I’ve always been interested in the contrast between the permanence of jewellery and the impermanence of flowers,” says Thompson Royds, whose Against Nature range goes on show this month at the Mahnaz Collection during New York City Jewelry Week. “Looking at the architecture of wildflowers that exist in the margins between roads and hedgerows – and are so often overlooked – has given me a newfound respect for nature. What seems simple is in fact highly complex.” In the same way, when broken down, a single pair of earrings emanating from the yellow petals of his common bird’s-foot trefoil design is comprised of some 50 separate parts.
For Thompson Royds, who grew up in a sleepy Cotswolds village, the concept of discovering hidden treasures within his artworks connects with our first childhood interactions with flowers – and jewels – whether by making daisy chains or adding a stem to a buttonhole. He also believes they are symbolic of hope for the future. “There’s something very optimistic in the resilience of these plants,” he says. “Give them some earth and leave them undisturbed and against all the odds they keep coming back.”