Brigid Edwards: New Works on Vellum
The sunflower has proved to be an attractive subject for artists down the ages. We are all familiar, perhaps too familiar, with the bunch of sunflowers Van Gogh painted for the yellow house in Arles in preparation for Gauguin’s arrival. And most of us will know through prints and other media the wonderful self-portrait Van Dyck painted standing beside a large sunflower of 1632. Recently at the Royal Academy we have seen Anselm Kiefer embed dried sunflowers into the surface of his mammoth paintings.
All these artists have in various ways drawn attention to the symbolic value of the sunflower. To many it expresses joy and hope and sunshine. To Van Dyck perhaps the fact that it turns its head to the sun it was a metaphor of his relationship with his great patron, King Charles I. Finally, when it is over and the seed heads are gathered, it produces a very useful oil, another metaphor which Kiefer explores in his work.
But there is another way of looking at the sunflower. In a spectacular painting in the current exhibition at Thomas Gibson’s gallery, Brigid Edwards draws attention to the structure of the flower and to the intricate pattern to be discovered in the flower head of the dying plant. In a before and after painting she uncovers a strangely satisfying geometric beauty in the way the plant is formed. Look closely at the head and you will see a network of curving lines radiating out from the centre, which intersect and form a pattern. It was this pattern which inspired her to take on the daunting challenge of painting the seed head in the first place. ‘I chose to paint the sunflower,’ she says ‘because it shows the Fibonacci sequence. I am interested in patterns and symmetry, the spiral which you see in so many fruits and flowers. Yes, even the gaudy dragon fruit is designed in a spiral.’
To uncover these spirals in nature, to identify a Fibonacci sequence (1), you need a magnifying glass or better still, a microscope. And from the beginning a microscope or a scanner has been an important element in the creation of her work.
‘I had an electron microscope with a screen which I used for [my] insect exhibition’ (2), she says. ‘I could enlarge, say, the wing of a moth, to see how it was constructed (tiny overlapping scales of chitin of different colours) but it [the microscope] was damaged when I moved house and too expensive to repair. So instead I now use a very high resolution scanner attached to the computer. But the actual process of drawing is the same. I proceed by deciding the size and therefore the scale of the specimen. Then using the enlarged scanned image on the screen draw the overall pattern of the wing. I then increase the enlargement to get close ups of details because I need to know how something is anatomically constructed before I can paint it. Overall it’s a combination of various rough sketches and notes of the subject and now a sort of familiarity with a species.’
To mention the microscope and the Fibonacci sequence in the context of Brigid Edward’s art might seem to suggest that she is working more like a scientist or a botanist than as an artist but I would like to argue the two traditions, the artistic and the scientific, are reverse sides of the same coin and a botanical, anatomical or natural history drawing can be both good science and great art - think of Leonardo's 'scientific' drawings or the astonishing study of wild flowers and grasses by Durer, The Large Piece of Turf.(3)
For centuries artists and scientists have been motivated by a common curiosity to describe and explain the natural world. Only in recent times has there appeared to be a big gulf between the two traditions. But when you stop to reflect on it, artists today rely more and more on the same technology used by scientists to examine and record the world they find themselves in and you are just as likely to find a camera, a computer, a scanner, a microscope, or a video recorder in an artist’s studio as in a scientist's lab. Both places provide environments where artists and scientists can experiment and make discoveries.
The microscope and later the scanner which Brigid Edwards has used is however a tool, not an end in itself. In her hands it allows her to create a composition and helps her lay out her specimens on the page to get the balance right between the object and the edges - the mise en page, the French call it. Too small and the specimen gets lost in the white surround, too big and the specimen overwhelms the page.
Magnification has other benefits. The beauties that exist in the natural world, often overlooked or barely noticed by the naked eye, become visible. By enlarging the wing of a humble moth, for example, Brigid Edwards discovered the sort of subtle colours and structures which would make a couturier weep with envy. Similarly a fallen leaf, which you might ignore if you saw it on a pavement, under close scrutiny is revealed to have the same delicate structure as a fan coral. And with Fibonacci numbers in mind, the lobes of a cherimoya overlap to produce a conical form similar to the way the leaves of an artichoke are arranged, and the outer leaves of the dragon fruit. Looking at her new work both the eye and then the mind are engaged.
Significantly, it was another artist who made good use of the microscope whose work inspired her to take the route she has embarked upon. In 1984, Brigid Edwards, hitherto a distinguished documentary film maker and a trained psychotherapist, while recovering from an illness discovered the drawings and paintings of orchid pollen grains by Franz Bauer (1758-1840) an Austrian artist working with John Lindley and Sir Joseph Banks at Kew. (4) In a golden age of botanical and natural history art, Bauer is considered by many, including Brigid Edwards, to be the greatest of them all.
In her early work, following her discovery of Bauer, her paintings of plants and insects are, one might say, in the Kew tradition - polished, accurate, meticulous. The observer as scientist is in control. But in recent work, and I think this is noticeably true of the work in the current exhibition, the artist takes command. The work strikes me as more expansive. The flower heads, the moth wings, the fruit, the vegetables, are given more space. The skill, the extraordinary patience required to do such work is the same, but it may not be the first thing you notice when you look at these works. Instead you may find yourself seduced by the gentle colour harmonies of her plants and insects or captivated by the delicate drawing underlying these works, the luminous quality of the watercolour on the creamy white vellum, and the rhythm of the patterns to be discovered in various plant forms. These are things the eye might not have noticed had Brigid Edwards not painted them. These new paintings inspire the onlooker to go back to the natural world and take a second look - and that is true artistry.
(1) In a work of 1202, Fibonacci, an Italian mathematician who helped introduce the Hindu-Arabic numeral system into Italy, drew attention to the sequence of numbers which still bears his name in which each number is the sum of two previous numbers. The sequence could be used to calculate the growth of a population of rabbits on an island based on idealised assumptions, but it can also be used to generate a spiral, a key structure to be found in many forms in nature, and a key factor for understanding Brigid Edward’s work. Over the centuries Fibonacci numbers have struck writers and artists as a sort of mystical code and today there are a host of books devoted to the subject - for example, Fascinating Fibonaccis: The Secret Code, The Mysterious Formula that Rules Art, Nature and Science (1989).
(2) Brigid Edwards, Natural Selection, Thomas Gibson Fine Art, 2005
(3) Around 1503, Durer produced a series of astonishingly detailed watercolours of natural history subjects, the wing of a parrot, a crouching hare surrounded by wildflowers, and perhaps most extraordinary of all, The Large Piece of Turf, one of the pride and joys of the Albertina museum in Vienna. Taken out of context a work like that might be seen to be a working drawing for a larger composition. But they are undoubtedly independent works of art to be enjoyed and appreciated in their own right.
(4) Bauer began his career drawing and painting the plants in the Imperial gardens in Vienna. On a visit to London in 1788 he was introduced to the great British botanist, Sir Joseph Banks who in turn arranged for him to be appointed ‘Botanick Painter to His Majesty King George III’ at Kew, where he spent the rest of his life drawing and painting the exotic plants which were beginning to arrive in great profusion as a result of discoveries made by Banks and others on voyages to Australia, South America and South Africa. Working with a microscope Bauer drew and coloured enlarged drawings of specimen plants in exquisite detail which were an invaluable tool for botanists to study but also beautiful to look at. For many Bauer is the greatest of all botanical artists but it was a time when the natural world was examined in minute detail and there were artists on hand with the skills and the artistry to create works of great beauty and great scientific value, and it was happening not just in Kew but in Germany and in France which witnessed the work produced by Pierre-Joseph Redouté (roses) and Jacques Barraban (parrots).
Ian Dunlop is a writer and former art critic for the Evening Standard. His books include The Shock of the New (1972), Van Gogh (1974) and Degas (1979). His most recent publication is a collection of poems,The Urban Fox (2016).