Fiona Strickland: Tulipa Exhibition opened last week at the Jonathan Cooper Gallery in Park Walk, Chelsea. Below you can find my review and images of the exhibition and what Fiona told me about her painting when we met up for lunch on Thursday last week. Plus more about Fiona and the presentation of the paintings at the end.
This is Fiona Strickland's second - and much awaited - solo exhibition after The Vital Moment in 2016. So much so that Botanical art collectors and lovers of heritage tulips had bought a number of her paintings before Tulipa opened!
I HIGHLY RECOMMEND botanical artists pay a visit. It's a rare exhibition of botanical artwork of a very high quality. I'm very sure that all those who work in vellum and all those who aspire to do must surely want to visit - because Fiona sets a benchmark which has been rarely equalled or exceeded. Besides - I also know a number of botanical artists, like me, are also botanical art collectors!
Do not forget your magnifier to see if you can spot her brush strokes!
You have until 26 September to visit the Exhibition (and must book a visiting time in advance due to social distancing requirements)
If you can't get to Chelsea you can either:
I went to see Tulipa on Thursday but met up with Fiona Strickland and her husband Robert McNeill for lunch in Chelsea beforehand. We had a wonderful catch-up since our last "chinwag" at the RHS Botanical Art Show in 2019 and I asked her about the exhibition.
This exhibition of stunning tulips should have been held in prime Tulip season back in Spring. However it was not to be. Like so many others, this exhibition was opening late - having, of course, been postponed due to the Pandemic.
It has been more than two years in the making - tulips only bloom in the spring!
The timescale was in part determined by Fiona's decision to paint some of the English Florists' tulips which are only available from the Wakefield and North of England Tulip Society - who have been showing them since 1836! This is the sole surviving Tulip Society in the UK - which grows heritage tulips (including English Florists' Tulip which are characterised by the flamed and feathered markings caused by Tulip Breaking Virus - which made them highly valued during Tulipomania). They also supplied Rory McEwen with tulips for his paintings. Indeed two of the tulip paintings in the show are of Tulipa ‘Rory McEwen’, a Bybloemen Flame tulip that was named in McEwen’s honour. One on Kelmscott Vellum and one on Rory McEwen Kelmscott bequeathed to her by the Hunt Institute where his vellum supplies now reside.
Like Rory McEwen before her, having learned of its work Strickland became a member, and was delighted to be gifted prize- winning tulips from its annual show to depict in her work. Carefully transporting them home in the brown beer bottles in which they are exhibited, after painting these perfect specimens Strickland could not bear to part with them, and has preserved their dried forms in her studio. Catalogue
There are eighteen watercolour paintings of tulips in this solo show - predominantly English Florists' Tulips - of which thirteen have now sold.
One of my inevitable questions is the one that is asked by so many. "How long does it take to complete a painting?" I was curious in part because I've had this conversation with Fiona before and over time she has changed the size of her paintings - and for this exhibition has painted a number of smaller single (and sometimes double) bloom paintings. Personally I think they're becoming even more refined - if that is possible.
A wise man once told me that crafting quality in order to reach a desired goal takes “time and patience”.
All the small paintings are scaled to size - that is the blooms you see are the exact same size as the specimens used for the paintings. The larger paintings have an enlarged perspective on their blooms.
All the paintings are watercolour on vellum on board (see end for details). Fiona only ever uses the most transparent watercolour paints by Winsor & Newton within a limited palette which can create all the colours she wants to use. Her technique involves a complex layering of tiny strokes to evoke the shape, form and colour of her subjects - although she assures me that people might be quite surprised how wet her painting can be at times. For this exhibition she has painted without any shadows at all so the different tonal values relate only to the form of the tulip. Fiona is of course a complete Master of the art of negative painting - of painting the bits inbetween - which give real substance and depth to one of her botanical paintings. She also achieves a fantastic depth of colour and totally convincing shape and form.
All the paintings look very much better in the Gallery than they do online or in the catalogue. That's because cameras have difficulty dealing with the very complex optical layering of colours in the darkest sections of the tulips. Parts which are so dark you feel sure they involve black turn out to be a complex mix of transparent shades of what look like oranges, reds, greens and purples.
While a large number of small paintings are single fresh blooms, some of the paintings are of different stages of the life cycle of one tulip. Indeed one tulip - "Blumex Parrot" - appears four times in different stages - changing colour while it does so - which makes spotting the four related paintings in the gallery very difficult as they are not hung together. Suffice to say that Fiona tells me that Shirley Sherwood now owns the one of Blumex Parrot in "later life" (bottom right below).
Below are the four stages of the Blumex Parrot tulip
This example illustrates Fiona's own approach to her artwork.
Fiona likes a challenge and is very happy to set herself a challenge with every painting she produces. That challenge is not always obvious to others but the rigour of complying with her own clear aim and rules of engagement enables her to maintain her focus during the very many long hours of painting.
However before the painting comes the research - and when I saw Fiona and Robert visiting the Netherlands in 2016 and then again in 2019 I knew there must be some more serious tulip painting on its way. Fiona told me about how they were very fortunate to be able to view the seventeenth-century Tulip Book created by Jacob Marrel (step-father of Maria Sybilla Merian) at the Rijksmuseum. For me studying how the great botanical artists of the past applied themselves to painting specific plants, is a very necessary precursor for developing new botanical paintings and it's wonderful to see Fiona continuing with this very professional practice. (For those in need of some study - see the History section of my website! You can find Jacob Marrel in German section of the page about Past Masters of Botanical Art and Illustration)
The other factor is that Fiona just LOVES painting as much as she can. So much so that she now focuses much more time on her painting and is not teaching as much as she has in the past.
I'm looking forward to Fiona's next period of more research, periods of extremely intense painting for an exhibition and her third solo exhibition at some point in the future at the Jonathan Cooper Gallery.
In the meantime I very much recommend you pay a visit to this exhibition of excellent botanical paintings of Tulipa.
Katherine Tyrrell writes about botanical art and artists and has followers all over the world. You can also find her at linktr.ee
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