Artist and plantsman
RAYMOND BOOTH, who has died aged 85, was a botanical artist and plantsman of international renown but so reclusive and obsessively dedicated was he, so indifferent to public recognition, that he was little known in his native county.
His Leeds house (where none of his own work was visible) gave no clue that here lived and worked the doyen of British botanical artists, although the sharp-eyed might have deduced from his books and from the innumerable orchids and other rare plants being nurtured in his garden and greenhouses, that he was a formidable plantsman.
Born in Leeds to working-class parents, he won a scholarship to Leeds College of Art in 1946, graduating in 1953 after study interrupted by National Service during 1948-9, spent mostly in Egypt.
His fascination with the natural world and rejection of modernism caused consternation; his teachers and fellow students called it ‘ridiculous’ and ‘a disgrace’ and he showed his work only to his parents.
Given a different background and educational opportunities, he later reflected, he would probably have become a plant scientist but he pursued his observations from nature, often from plants he himself had grown, in oils on board and paper, always to actual size and with exquisite attention to character, form, texture and colour.
On leaving art school he was found to be suffering from TB; a spell in a sanatorium enabled him to develop his botanical studies and he soon began to submit work to exhibitions, including the Royal Horticultural Society, where they attracted the attention of Dr Harold Fletcher, then Director of the RHS gardens at Wisley.
Some of his studies began to be reproduced in gardening journals and individual works were exhibited at Walker’s Galleries, New Bond Street, London. Later, the Fine Art Society represented him, resulting in a relationship lasting over 50 years from 1962 with oneman shows taking place in 1975, 1982, 1991, 1993, 2000, 2007 and 2011.
A perfectionist, he worked slowly, developing both wonderfully balanced studies of individual plants and animals and densely worked close-up landscapes in which woodland and meadows, populated by fox, hare, rabbit or birds, acquire a poetic quality through his sensitivity to season, weather and time of day.
Characteristically, his first contact with Leeds Museums was through the natural science collections where curators John Armitage and Adrian Norris, stored and lent owls, rabbits and hares from the deep freeze for his studies; several owl studies were lent to an exhibition on birds of prey at the City Museum during the early 1970s.
Gradually he was coaxed into publication, contributing studies to B L Urquhart’s The Camelia in 1956 and culminating in his stunning, large-scale images of Japanese flora complementing Don Elick’s text in Japonica Magnifica (1992), with some exhibited in a US tour in 19923. Peyton Skipwith (Fine Art Society) published Raymond Booth: An Artist’s Garden in 2000 (Callaway Editions, New York) and Jean Booth produced Booth’s Winter Diary with Raymond’s RECLUSIVE: Raymond Booth was one of the greatest botanical artists of his age, his work having ‘intensity and strangeness’.
text and atmospheric landscapes, nature compositions and single plant studies, all deriving from his lifetime’s saturation in the countryside a stone’s throw from Leeds, notably in Adel Woods.
He very rarely attended exhibitions of his own work but eminent collectors, such as Alan and Jane Clark, queued in Bond Street on his exhibition preview days for a chance to purchase. Shirley Sherwood (who formed a great botanical art collection and established the Shirley Sherwood Gallery at Kew), recalled: “My first introduction to Raymond
Booth’s original art was standing on a chilly pavement outside the Fine Art Society… queueing to get in at 7.30 in the morning. I could hardly believe that I was sixteenth in line..”
His work is in private collections in Europe, America, Japan and the Middle East as well as a number of British public collections.
Despite his international following, Raymond Booth’s work was almost unknown in Yorkshire. A selection of his studies of Japanese flora for Japonica Magnifica was shown at Lotherton Hall in 1992 but it was not until 2002 that he had a full retrospective at Leeds City Art Gallery. He and his wife Jean were persuaded to attend the opening to see his achievements celebrated.
In a dramatic turn of events many of the works by this shy, very private man were purchased during a whirlwind visit to the show by the American thriller writer and collector Patricia Cornwell, who also presented a fine study of an American plant, Vollmer’s leopard lily, Lilium Pardalinum, to the Leeds collections (this is currently on show in the Art Gallery).
Raymond Booth was above all a great recorder of the natural world who could translate his observations of the Yorkshire countryside, its fauna and flora, into oil studies and compositions of a beauty and intensity rivalling the greatest of his Victorian predecessors.
The origins of botanical art go back to late Antiquity and it was very fashionable during the Victorian period. When he began work it was simply considered a very old-fashioned artform, but is now much more widely appreciated for its inherent beauty, skill and precision with a number of hugely gifted practitioners round the world.
Raymond Booth is recognised as one of the greatest; Sir Roy Strong, former director of the V&A, commented on how his work functioned both as a scientifically accurate descriptive study and as a painting in its own right having ‘an intensity and strangeness about it’.
His densely worked nature compositions, which have a slightly surreal quality, are equally sought-after.
He received doughty support and companionship from his wife, Jean, who survives him; long-time friends after they met at Gadsby’s artists’ materials shop in Leeds where she worked, they married in 1991.
(BCP), 10am – Matins, 11.15am – Sung Eucharist and Holy Baptism, 3.30pm – Evensong,
10.45am – All-Age Worship, 5.30pm – Said Evening Prayer or Compline.
9.30am – Mass (sung), 11am – Mass (sung), 6pm – Mass.
9.15am – Holy Communion, (BCP), 10.30am – Choral Eucharist (CW Order 1), 6.30pm – Choral Evensong.
7.45am – Litany, 8am – Holy Communion (Order 2), 9.30am – Sung Eucharist (Order 1), 11.15am – Matins, 12.30pm – Holy Communion (Order 1), 3.45 – Evensong,
8am – Eucharist, 9.30am – Matins, 10.30am – Sung Eucharist, 12.30pm – Eucharist, 5.30pm – Evensong.
8am – Holy Communion, 10.30am – Family Communion.
8am – Holy Communion, 10am – Sung Eucharist.
8am – Holy Communion, 9.30am – Morning Prayer, 10.30am – Cathedral Eucharist, 4pm – Evening Prayer with hymns.