5 Jul 2016

A botanical treasure – in black and white

Ardd Fotaneg · Botanic Garden

Stella Ross-Craig (1906-2006) was a botanist and artist whose Drawings of British Plants is a true botanical treasure trove.  No vivid colour here – this work is entirely made up of black and white line drawings, meticulously detailed, scientifically accurate …but with a haunting beauty all their own.

Born in 1906 in Aldershot, but of Scottish family,  Stella Ross-Craig was always interested in Botany, so in 1929 after studying at Thanet Art School and Chelsea Polytechnic, a job at Kew – as a botanical illustrator and taxonomist – must have been her dream position. Stella’s work soon came to the attention of the then Director of Kew, Sir Edward Salisbury, who introduced her to a publisher.

Although she painted flowers in colour, she is best known for her series Drawings of British Plants, the first issue appearing in 1948. It consists of black and white line drawings, one page for each species. In the democratic spirit of those post-war years, the series was issued as a set of affordable paperbacks, eventually numbering 31 volumes, the last being published in 1973. It includes over 1,300 plates, and includes all the British flowering plants except grasses and sedges.

An invaluable resource

We are lucky enough to have been donated two complete sets of her 31 volumes for our Library here at the Botanic Garden. They have been widely used by students and by artists, and notably in the last year or so by some of our amazing Stitching ‘B’ embroiderers, for whom these detailed drawings have proved a really useful resource, reference and inspiration.

Awards and exhibits

Stella Ross-Craig was a Fellow of the Linnaean Society from 1948 to 1974, was awarded the Kew Award Medal in 1999 and  the Royal Horticultural Society’s Gold Veitch Memorial Medal in 2002. At the age of 95, in 2003 an exhibition of 55 of her original pictures was shown at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, and subsequently at Kew.

Stella died in 2006, just a couple of weeks short of her 100th birthday, surely the true First Lady of British botanical illustration.

Stella Ross-Craig (1906-2006): Drawings of British Plants ; London: G. Bell & Sons; 1948…1973.