This is an appreciation of the life of Pandora Sellars and contains many contributions by way of 'thank you' for the life of a great botanical artist
The celebrated botanical artist Pandora Sellars GM died on 9th May 2017, age 80. She is perhaps best known by many for two iconic paintings which contributed to the revival of botanical art in the UK
Indeed the lives and careers of many leading botanical artists and teachers in the UK, Canada, USA, Japan and Australia owe much to “the best leaf painter ever”.
This kindly and introverted artist, with the quite remarkable blue eyes and a keen sense of humour, also enjoyed lasting relationships with botanists, archivists and botanical illustrators at Kew Gardens - and across the world.
Read on to find out why... (click link bottom right)
Pandora (‘Paddy’ to her close friends and family) was born on 25th August 1936 in Hereford. She grew up in the Welsh Marches area in Herefordshire and loved nature from an early age. Her enthusiasm for drawing and painting plants probably started from her access to a diverse and fascinating array of flora where she lived and in the nearby Wye Valley and Black Mountains.
Education and Art Training
She studied textile design at both Hereford and Cheltenham Schools of Art, followed by a teaching diploma from the Manchester College of Art. She went on to teach textile design and fine art in Barrow in Furness in 1957/8.
Pandora met her husband when he taught her art at Hereford. Her husband Jim was an artist who specialising in printmaking. Together they had a daughter who in turn presented them with a much-loved grandson. Her husband passed away in 2000.
With the exception of a period of time spent near Southampton, the family spent most of their time living in Herefordshire.
When her husband Jim built his first heated greenhouse attached to their home in Southampton (and later again in Hereford), the orchids and tropical plants that he collected became Pandora’s inspiration. Thus a long career in botanical art commenced.
Pandora painted plants in watercolour. Her particular talent was for being able to paint multiple plants in well thought out compositions. In fact, most artists when asked will highlight "composition" as being one of the stand-out qualities of her botanical artwork. It's what makes her work transcend a wholly accurate rendition of a plant.
She also paints the most amazing leaves and, to my mind, knew exactly how to paint proper saturated colour and at the same time suggest how light falls on structures to suggest form. Her work positively jumps off the page!
For the botanists she painted series of illustrations for various flora and monographs on specific genus - focusing on alums and orchids.
From observation, I'd say she particularly enjoyed creating composite paintings that have a 'natural' feel about them.
Pandora exhibited a number of times during her career and my 20 Century Botanical Masters page about her will list these. Her solo exhibition at Kew Gardens in 1990 was a sell-out and brought her work to the attention of a number of people - besides those at Kew who highly rated her work already.
Her work continues to be displayed regularly at exhibitions at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Art at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and is included in the current exhibition of British Artists in the Shirley Sherwood Collection
Awards and Medals
Between 1972 and 1980, Pandora exhibited a number of times at the Royal Horticultural Society's Botanical Art Show. She was awarded 4 Silver medals (1972-1973 when she exhibited twice in each year); 2 Silver gilt medals (1974-75); and 1 Gold medal (1977) for her paintings.
I first met her at the RHS, in 1978 when we were both first showing our work. Everyone who saw her amazing compositions was completely bowled over by the tremendously high standard which she achieved, together with her unique painterly approach. She has been an inspirational role model, both to me and my students ever since, and she and her exemplary work will be sadly missed.
In 1999, the Linnean Society awarded her the Jill Smythies Award "for excellence in botanical illustration", thus placing her forever in the top ranked botanical artists in the world.
Her work appeared in numerous publications about science and art.
She regularly provided illustrations for Kew’s Curtis Magazine) from 1984 to 1995 as well as more scientific botanical publications.
Pandora Sellars changed the lay of the land for all those botanical artists who followed her, opening up possibilities for interpretation not previously imagined. We admire the subtlety and sensitivity with which she rendered each petal and leaf, but also the drama, complexity, and freshness of the compositions she created, whether for a Bot Mag plate or in one of her massive tapestry-like stagings. From conception to execution, she took no short-cuts, and her work still leaves me awe-struck. No matter how many times I’ve seen one of her paintings, there is always something new to see.
Botanical Art and Flower Painting
Her particular style of designing and painting portraits of plants and flowers was highlighted in numerous books
I know that I am not alone in considering Pandora Sellars one of the most important botanical artists of all time. It goes without saying that her work is botanically accurate, but it is much more. Here is an artist who has transcended the pedantic plant study to paint true works of art. Hers is a subtle approach, restrained and yet surprising. Her paintings have an immediately recognisable stamp and probably her leaves are amongst the most beautiful and yet accurate that have ever been painted
Pandora received many commissions from botanical authors and art collectors during her lifetime. However some of her commissions were of a more commemorative nature. Some of the more unusual and notable are listed below.
The stamps included
Her painting of Tropical Glasshouse Plants (see 'Flower Artists of Kew' pages 128-129) was commissioned by Kew as a gift from the Royal Botanic Gardens to the Princess of Wales on the occasion of the official opening of Kew’s Princess of Wales Conservatory in July 1987. It was painted in her studio from plants in the Princess of Wales Conservatory - and part of it was used for the design for the plate
In later life she began to spend more time providing tuition - within botanical art schools (notably the 'English Gardening School' at the Chelsea Physic Garden, Heligan and at Denver), at the Royal College of Art, at the Los Angeles Arboretum and in workshops (e.g. ASBA 2008). She also taught and mentored a small number of individual students on a one to one basis.
I first met Pandora when she came to teach us at the English Gardening School in 1996. As a group we had been to see the Shirley Sherwood Exhibition at Kew and were totally in awe of Pandora and her incredible work. In the flesh she was charming and funny with many stories to tell. She possessed the most amazing blue eyes - just like forget-me-nots. Composition and fluent lines were so beautifully crafted and taught by her and the most extraordinary part of all this is the legacy she has left us all - each painting is an education in itself. We still have much to learn
Well over a decade ago whilst a diploma student in botanical art at the English Gardening School, I received a couple of days tuition from Pandora Sellars. I recall her piercing blue eyes as she put me through my paces with composition exercises. Truly a ‘light bulb’ moment, which inspired me to put composition at the heart of every drawing and painting I create. Her meticulous draftsmanship shone out of the simple class notes she provided,. Just a couple of hand drawn and annotated photocopies, but with instructional drawings of unique precision and beauty. I have them still and treasure them. Thank you Pandora, you will be greatly missed
I feel very privileged to have had Pandora to stay with me as I invited her to run some workshops here at Heligan for my students. We were in awe at her meticulous attention to detail, and at the time she took in preparing her compositions. We watched how she painted around every fine hair on a stem. We still call it "doing a Pandora"! She was inspirational to those of us who aspire to excelling in Botanical Painting, and in my eyes is still the one of the best artists in our field of all time. She also opened our eyes to the importance of composition. She introduced us to new ways of describing our subject, highlighting contrasting leaf shapes , colours and forms, put together to form a vivid and memorable image. I still have the Brussels Sprouts with the leaf placed behind that we did with her. I shall treasure it! Pandora was able to produce the elusive 'wow' factor in her work, aesthetically pleasing as well as scientifically accurate. I value the few days she was with us here in Cornwall very much indeed, and she will be sadly missed.
I took a workshop with Pandora Sellars at an ASBA meeting back in 2008 in California. I was a bit in awe of her and very curious to see how she worked. She had misplaced her glasses so I loaned her my reading glasses. I remember looking over at her paintbox and being absolutely astonished -it was filthy! Dust, fluff, and I’m sure I saw cat hairs! Yet she cheerfully produced gorgeous sketches from it with a ratty old brush, borrowed glasses, in a sketchbook that looked like blotting paper from where I stood. When I catch myself fretting about materials, getting too precious about them, or getting bent out of shape over changes in paper or paint, I remind myself of that afternoon and remember how little it all has to do with how a great artist really makes art happen.
An Inspiration to Others
Her lasting legacy is that she has inspired very many artists - of all ages from all parts of the world.
I met with Beverley Allen GM in the current exhibition of British Botanical Artists at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery at Kew. Beverley is the Co-Founder and President of the Florilegium Society associated with the Royal Botanic Gardens and Domain Trust in Sydney (which will be exhibiting at Kew in 2018). She shared with me that the painting which got her started in botanical art was the iconic Blue Waterlily Painting on the front of Shirley Sherwood's book about Contemporary Botanical Artists - and currently on exhibition at Kew.
So I took a photograph of her with the painting - little realising at the time why I would be highlighting it in this post.
Pandora Sellars, along with Dr Shirley Sherwood, is responsible for my entry into botanical art now 20 years ago.
Beverley was not the only artist to be inspired by Pandora. Her paintings have been an inspiration to very many artists and botanical art teachers - who then became interested in the pursuit of botanical art.
Many years ago when I set out to try a career in fashion, I immediately began to dream of a life less stressful, that would offer me the chance to get back to drawing and painting, Pandora's work gave me that solution. I found the inspirational work of Pandora Sellers by chance; I discovered a fig growing wild in a piece of waste land near where I lived in London and painted it with such enthusiasm that my boyfriend (now husband) bought me a book by Shirley Sherwood to celebrate my new found painting passion. In this book I saw Pandora's art and fell head over heels in love with the precision and artistry. Pandora was the queen of composition even her signature displayed her creativity; I fell in love with her work and it set me on a path to seek my own style of botanical painting. I shall be forever grateful. Dear Pandora rest in peace, you were an inspiration to so many.
Like many artists of my age, Pandora Sellars was one of the very few truly inspirational Botanical artists. Masterful composition, colour and technique, but with that extra something, the undefinable quality, which can't be taught and sets her apart as one of the greats. For me she was the complete package of what a botanical artist should be - rolled into one!
25 years ago the work of Pandora Sellars inspired me to venture further into botanical art. Her paintings have such a rich botanical narrative, composition of the highest standard and the ability to totally absorb you and also inspire you further
Others were inspired by getting up close to her actual paintings - and some even bought them!
Although I sadly never met her, I am the proud owner of one of her watercolours, which I treasure. Some years ago she had an exhibition at Kew. By the time I got there seemingly everything had been snapped up. I happened to look behind a door. My lucky day. A perfectly beautiful little painting of hazelnuts, and no red spot. It hangs in my bedroom, and gives me so much pleasure. A wonderful artist.
A great loss, she was truly original and a visionary, apart from being technically brilliant.
I was heavily influenced by Pandora work back in 2010 when I hung some of her work in one in the exhibitions at Kew, The Waterlilies and Arums. I remember being really impressed by her brush technique as well as her incredibly modern approach to composition. For me it was on par with Rory McEwen. It was probably Pandora's influence that got me to start chopping things off along straight edges. She's in my top ten most influential artists.
I'll finish with one which to my mind encompasses the entirety of the individual and her work and why she is one of the greatest botanical artists of modern times.
The great thing about Pandora's work was that she elevated the art of botanical illustration to such a great height that it superseded any categorization. Quite simply she was the best, and she was also completely original.
A memorial for Pandora Sellars
Pandora Sellars died at home in Herefordshire a week ago today. Her health had been very frail in recent years.
A memorial is being organised for Pandora by her daughter Sarah - see the Just Giving Page for Pandora Sellars she has set up.
Pandora Sellars, the world's leading botanical illustrator, died on 9th May 2017. In addition to her art which has been dispersed around the globe, her friends and family want to plant a living memorial in the hamlet where she lived. We are asking any of her friends who would like to commemorate her life to contribute to a fund to plant snowdrops 'in the green' next spring, rather than by sending flowers to the funeral or donations to any charity.
I'm also planning a page "About Pandora Sellars" as a memorial and archive of her achievements and influence (and will include a link here as soon as I've got it in a state ready to be published. It will include more about her life and career).
I'm also hoping to create an inventory of her paintings as I did for the page about Rory McEwen. If any of you have a painting by Pandora can you please contact me.
Note: This post would not have been possible without the help of two people. I'm very grateful for the assistance of her daughter Sarah Neill and the Canadian artist and teacher Margaret Best, who Pandora asked to help her document her CV in 2008.
Pandora is the sweetest, kindest most talented person I have ever known. She had no need for fame and fortune. Had a wicked sense of humour and a delightful giggle that I can still hear
You can read Margaret's own tribute to Pandora Spotlight on Pandora Sellars on her gallery website
Note: Minor revisions to provide fuller information or improve accuracy have been made since this was first published.
Katherine Tyrrell writes about botanical art and artists and has followers all over the world.
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