4 Min | Perspective

Me and my passion: Dr Shirley Sherwood OBE

Shirley Sherwood has revived an astonishing new passion for this art form, fostered the careers of artists from around the world and published a number of acclaimed books. Today her collection is viewed by thousands of people every week in the gallery which bears her name in the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Her interest started really very young, Shirley Sherwood says. “From the age of nine I had a magnifying glass and a basic microscope. My mother was a painter – very interested in plants – and my father was also interested in natural history, keeping bird lists and so on.

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Dr Shirley Sherwood, above, receiving an award from the Botanical Research Institute of Texas in August 2019 for her lifetime contribution to botany

“But the biggest step came when, aged 14, I was invited to stay in Pakistan for three months. My godfather was the last Governor of the North-West Frontier Province and it was an incredible opportunity for a young girl. I used to explore on my pony, with another pony for my flower presses, and a guide.

“I’d look at everything. Wonderful orchids – and so many plants that I recognised from English gardens, such as rhododendrons, growing in their native habitat in the Himalaya.

“On my return I went to Kew with pressed specimens that I couldn't identify. I was starting to become interested in classification, and loved looking at drawings of plants. I found the science fascinating too. By age 15 I knew I wanted to study botany.”

At Oxford in the 1960s Sherwood studied under Professor Cyril Darlington, a controversial and brilliant scientist whose work on genetics altered the understanding of evolution.

DNA analysis was then beginning to change the processes of plant classification. Whereas previously plants had been grouped into global families based on their observable characteristics, plants’ relationships with one another could now be scientifically proven through DNA. This seismic shift in the understanding of the plant kingdom would underpin Sherwood’s future interest in botanical art. It also became the explicit subject of her 2009 book The Art of Plant Evolution, authored jointly with American botanist W John Kress of the Smithsonian Institute.

“It’s fair to say that ultimately that book made clear how valuable and largely accurate visual identification had been as a method of classification,” Sherwood says. “There were some surprises, but in most cases observations that had been made for centuries by botanists were proved correct by DNA.”

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Above, The colours of Brittlegills : Russula sp by St Petersburg-based artist Alexander Viazmensky

Sherwood’s post-graduate studies were broken off in the late 1960s by the death of her husband in a plane crash, leaving her with two children to support. She switched direction through a role with the pharmaceutical company SmithKline (now GSK), going on to develop expertise in radiography and, in particular, the dispersal of radioactive materials within bodies. “I re-learned a great deal of anatomy,” she recalls. The techniques were valuable in the process of drug-testing, and her work at SmithKline formed the basis of her doctorate on the drug Tagamet.

In most cases observations that had been made for centuries by botanists were proved correct by DNA

Her life was then transformed again, this time through her marriage to American businessman James Sherwood, founder of London-based shipping firm Sea Containers, and who was at that point branching into the hotel industry. “Jim effectively introduced containerisation into Europe,” Shirley Sherwood says. “We travelled together a great deal: I probably knew more about container ports than any other woman on earth.” Those journeys formed the basis of Sherwood’s interest in botanical art - starting a passion that would become central to the rest of her life.

She discovered artworks and artists through local libraries, galleries, shops – and by word of mouth. “The artists of the past had done beautiful work, much of which was in institutions and not on display – but today’s artists were also doing wonderful work. They weren't recognised. Nobody knew about them.”

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Above, detail from Dandelion, three o'clock, charcoal with watercolour, by Rosie Sanders (b1944)

It was the 1990s and the internet had not yet unleashed the explosion of digital networks we take for granted today. While botanical art had always been an interest of collectors, they tended to favour earlier artists from Europe, with names such as Redoute or the Dietzche family being especially highly prized. Sherwood was breaking new ground as she built a truly global collection drawing on undiscovered artists on every continent. Several have since become renowned, largely because of the exhibtions she has mounted all over the world and the popularity of her books.

“I ferreted around wherever I went,” she says. “I found a pile of paintings in the corner of a shop in Manila. I trekked across Japan to reach an extremely talented woman whose work was displayed in a department store. On one occasion I spotted some pictures in a hairdresser near my hotel in Bangkok. Luckily with my magnifying glass I could see the work was original. With help I found the artist.”

Sherwood’s collection numbers over 1,000 works and she has met almost every artist. “It has consumed my life, rather,” she admits, making time to give this interview while preparing for her latest exhibition and book launch (see below).

“There’s a great difference between botanical illustration and botanical art,” she stresses. “Botanical illustration is the result of intense observation and quite often the dissection of plants. It is very descriptive, detailed and accurate.”

“Botanical art is the meeting place between science and art. What you are really seeing is a plant portrait: the essence of the plant.”

MODERN MASTERPIECES OF BOTANICAL ART: The Shirley Sherwood Collection. Visit the above exhibtion which runs until 15 March in the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art (near the Temperate House), Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
The accompanying book by Dr Sherwood is available at the gallery, at Kew's shops for £25 and online.

Main picture, top: Female cones of Encephalartos ferox by American artist Leslie Carol Berge (1959-2016). Images courtesy of Shirley Sherwood Collection

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