I am always being asked how I became interested in botanical art and how I started the Shirley Sherwood Collection.
My story starts with the gift of a magnifying glass at the age of 9 that opened up a new world and a mother who loved to capture the essence of flowers in a quick sketch. I went on to read Botany at Oxford where the emphasis was on genetics and the new study of ecology but I did have time to admire the original works of Austrian botanical artist Ferdinand Bauer and other treasures in the botany department.
In the early 80s, I started the Orient-Express magazine, a publication about the hotels and trains developed by my husband James Sherwood. While hunting for editorial material, I attended a lecture at the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) given by Dr Brinsley Burbidge who I persuaded to write an article for the magazine.
Later that decade, I attended an exhibition of contemporary botanical paintings organised by Dr Burbidge at the Cambridge Cottage in the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. The paintings were for sale and this is where I bought the first work for what has now become the Shirley Sherwood Collection. It was July 1990 and the painting was a complex work with orchids by the hugely talented Pandora Sellars.
At the time, I had absolutely no intention of starting a collection. But I became bitten by the bug and the collection soon grew. I started to commission portraits of favourite plants grown at my Oxfordshire home and to acquire contemporary work on my travels.
By the mid-90s, I had amassed quite a large number of paintings and was approached by Dr Burbidge and Vicky Matthews who proposed that I held an exhibition in Cambridge Cottage at Kew in 1996. This was quite a bombshell; it needed lists of works, framing, photographing and writing a book to accompany the show. I am thrilled to say that over 40,000 people visited the exhibition and the book ‘Contemporary Botanical Artists’ was reprinted many times and became a valuable resource for artists and teachers.
Over the following 20 years, I continued to grow my collection and showed it in a variety of venues from the scientific - Kew, the Hunt Institute and the Smithsonian - to the predominantly artistic like the National Galleries of Scotland’s Museum of Modern Art and the art galleries of New Orleans and Denver. In 2008, I collaborated with Kew to create the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art, the world’s first exhibition space dedicated to showcasing the genre, and have held over 50 exhibitions there since its launch.
In October 2018, my family secretly commissioned a painting by British artist Coral Guest and presented it to me as the 1,000 work in my collection. It depicted the Davidia Involucrata (Handkerchief Tree) that flourishes in my garden today and is a family favourite. The gift coincided with the 10th anniversary of the Shirley Sherwood Gallery and the millionth visitor through its doors, all major milestones for the collection.
Today, the Shirley Sherwood Collection includes paintings from over 300 artists in 36 countries, forming a comprehensive sampling of the current botanical art field worldwide.
I have often been asked why I restricted myself to contemporary artists. In truth, I felt it foolish to try and compete with institutions like the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, the Natural History Museums of London and Washington, the V&A or the Oxford and Cambridge libraries who all have wonderful collections of historical material. When I compare the high standards of many of today’s artists with the past masters, I am uplifted by the quality of material in my collection and the efforts being made by contemporary artists both to document endangered species and create ‘wall appeal’. I value good composition, superb technique, truthful colour and originality and would often respond to gut reaction when entering a gallery to purchase a painting.
I do hope that you enjoy browsing the works on this site, whether you are here for research or pleasure, and that you find many paintings that bring you joy, as I have done over the last 30 years of collecting.