When photographer Saxon Holt came to town a few months ago, I told him that I was planning an exhibit of botanical art at Eureka Books, the antiquarian bookstore we bought in December. We have an event called Arts Alive on the first Saturday of the month in Eureka; all the businesses in Old Town stay open late, pour a little wine, exhibit a little art, and generally have a good time. Eureka Books had always stayed open late on Arts Alive, but the store had never hosted an exhibit of any kind before we bought it.
So we’ve been putting up some kind of book-related art every month. Botanical art seemed like a perfect fit since this art form began as book illustrations. In particular, I was excited about bringing in some of Pierre-Joseph Redoute’s hand-colored stipple engravings of roses that he did for the famous book Les Roses, which was published in the early 1800s under the patronage of Josephine Bonaparte.
Saxon told me that when he was hired to photograph roses for two Smith & Hawken rose books, 100 Old Roses for the American Garden and 100 English Roses for the American Garden, he was inspired by Redoute. If you think about it, it’s not so easy to photograph a rose flat against a white background. Rose blossoms face up, but to do a good illustration you need them to face toward the viewer, not toward the sky. You also need perfect examples of the rose in full bloom, in bud, and perhaps going to seed. Finding all of this on one stem is not easy. Botanical illustrators often had to piece together bits of a plant to get the perfect specimen. So that’s what Saxon did.
On the right, you can see a "before" shot of the dismembered rose. He assembled these on location, in the rose garden where each rose in the book happened to be in bloom, often working in makeshift studios in someone’s garage. The roses were pieced together with tiny bits of clay, and the clay was also used to gently lift the leaves and petals off the background to create pleasing shadows behind them.
Saxon has done a signed limited edition set of prints from the books on gorgeous watercolor paper. I picked them up over the weekend; they’re in the store now. Over the next few days I’ll be cataloging and pricing this and other botanical art, from modern California artists to rare 200-300 year-old botanical engravings, for our show. We’re holding a preview party Friday night and the big event is Saturday night, both to benefit the Humboldt Botanical Gardens Foundation, an organization that is in the process of building a botanical garden here in Humboldt County.
So–it’s summer, the garden’s overrun with weeds, and I’m inside working with pristine botanical works on paper. Not a bad deal, all in all. You can read more about our exhibit here.