Botanical art that's ripe for viewing

They look almost too good to eat, shining out of pitch darkness as if caught by a camera flash. "Red Apples" belongs to a remarkable collection of contemporary botanical art, the Shirley Sherwood Collection. Dr. Sherwood believes that recent decades have witnessed a new golden age in botanical painting, an ancient art form, and she has allowed her collection to be exhibited internationally to prove the point. Its current showing, at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, England, goes further. It's an opportunity to place her collection in the context of old botanical paintings, also selected by her. The exhibition, called "A New Flowering: 1,000 years of Botanical Art," is on view until Sept. 11.

She links "Red Apples" with 17th century Dutch still life art (which also has dark backgrounds), those marvellous displays of representational skill that capture phenomenal arrays of fruit and flowers. "Red Apples" artist Jaggu Prasad is Indian, born in Jaipur, Rajasthan. He is clearly fascinated by traditional European art.

The phrase "botanical art" joins two worlds. The first is scientific and analytical, a means of record and identification, with the fastidious details a botanist needs to distinguish different species. Such botanical drawings and paintings are likely to have a Latin name in their title. The second is, above all, artistic. "Red Apples" is in this world, and it includes no Latin.

Other highly polished recent paintings in the Sherwood collection also depict what might be called generic apples; some are more specific. These modern works are compared with a "pomona" of the late 19th century. A pomona is a collection of fruit studies in book form. "The Herefordshire Pomona" was the work of botanist Robert Hogg and naturalist Henry Graves. Color illustrations show a variety of apples and pears. The aim was botanical. But these plates are beautiful - and expensively reproduced. Hogg regretted that pomonas were so costly they were seen "more as works of art, than of general utility."

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