Published  24/06/2002

The Banksias: Watercolours

‘The Banksias: Watercolours’

‘The Banksias: Watercolours’, by Celia Rosser at the State Library of Victoria, Melbourne (5 April—30 June 2002) marks the publication of Volume III of The Banksias by Rosser and Alex George. The publication marks the completion of a 25-year-old project at Monash University, Melbourne on which Celia Rosser worked exclusively.

The exhibition displays the product of this work: 76 superbly detailed, life-sized watercolours documenting all known species of banksias as well as preliminary sketches. Rosser is recognised as one of the leading botanical artists in the world, a judgement that was made official when she was awarded the Linnaeus Society Medal in London in 1997. Her banksia career started modestly in 1961 when she was 30, expecting her fourth child. With a carload of four small children she and a friend became bogged on a sandy road in the Victorian bush, near Orbost. While waiting for a tractor to rescue them, she happened upon a Banksia serrata. She was immediately aware of the significance of her find – this was one of four banksias discovered by Sir Joseph Banks in 1770 in Botany Bay. Four decades later she still marvels at their beauty, finding in their rugged, woody appearance an image that typifies Australia. She has just documented her 77th species of banksia. Banksias are a very ancient plant; fossil remains suggest that they are between 40 and 50 million years old. They are best known for their spectacular blooms; in fact some species are under threat since they have been exploited for the cut flower industry. Certain species, however, are now cultivated commercially to reduce the pressure on wild populations.

Botanical painting in Australia dates back to Captain James Cook’s voyage of discovery in 1768. He had with him a team of naturalists led by Joseph Banks. Banks, then aged 25, was of independent means and contributed the vast sum of £10,000 towards the trip. The achievements of the explorers was remarkable. They gathered, identified and documented 30,000 specimens; 1,400 species were new to science. Botany Bay was in fact named in response to the incredible number of new plants found. The Natural History Museum in London houses the collection.

The Banksias, presently on show in Melbourne, form a superb three-volume set. The first two have so far been presented to the Queen by the Australian government. They are the products of many field trips, organised by botanist Alex George who travelled with Rosser to collect the specimens. This is a collaborative project where artist and botanist strive for the most accurate scientific rendition of each species.

George organised most of these field trips with his comprehensive knowledge of location, and flowering and fruiting times of plants. Many banksia species are common and easily located whilst others are found in remote and almost inaccessible areas. One of these trips involved collecting, with appropriate permission, the rare and endangered Banksia oligantha from a remote Aboriginal sacred site. During these trips, George and Rosser selected aesthetically pleasing specimens that displayed the major stages of growth, flower and fruiting. Rosser made colour notes and pencil drawings documenting the myriad colours of flowers and plants, later to be the basis of the long and difficult process of building her watercolours, wash upon wash, until the final paintings were completed.1

The images in the three volumes, bound in green leather, are painted on Arches rag paper. The plates were reproduced with offset lithography to the exact dimensions of the life-size watercolours; the trimmed page 77 x 55 cms. The edition for Volumes I (1981) and Volume II, (1988) was 730 books and 100 portfolios. Volume III comprises 530 books and 300 loose-leaf portfolios. Reproduced to the very highest standard they combine scientific accuracy and aesthetic considerations. It is the first time that an entire genus has been painted and reproduced, securing Celia Rosser's position as a botanical artist of international standing.

1. The Banksias, Monash University in association with Nokomis Publications, Melbourne, 2002.


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