Ex­hibit of­fers rare glimpse at Bunny Mel­lon’s botan­i­cal art

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - LIFE - By Kather­ine Roth

She started gar­den­ing at age 5 and be­came a con­sum­mate hor­ti­cul­tur­al­ist and art col­lec­tor, par­tic­u­larly of botan­i­cal art. But un­til now, Rachel “Bunny” Mel­lon’s vast col­lec­tion could be seen by in­vi­ta­tion only at her Oak Spring Gar­den es­tate and li­brary, just out­side Wash­ing­ton, D.C.

In what is be­ing billed as a com­ing-out party for the Mel­lon col­lec­tion, more than 50 works, most never be­fore shown in pub­lic, are now on view at the New York Botan­i­cal Gar­den in the Bronx.

The show, “Red­oute to Warhol: Bunny Mel­lon’s Botan­i­cal Art,” will re­main on view at the gar­den’s Lester T. Mertz Li­brary through Feb. 12.

Mel­lon — who de­signed the present Rose Gar­den at the White House and re­stored a “potager” gar­den at Ver­sailles, in France — had, by the time of her death in 2014 at age 103, amassed thou­sands of works of botan­i­cal art. They in­cluded en­grav­ings, wa­ter­col­ors, works on pa­per and can­vas, and more than 10,000 rare and schol­arly books. All were housed at Oak Spring, in Up­perville, Vir­ginia.

“The col­lec­tion cer­tainly traces the his­tory of gar­den­ing and hor­ti­cul­ture... but also the evo­lu­tion of our in­ter­ac­tion with plants, from some of the ear­li­est books on the cul­ti­va­tion on plants,” said Sir Peter Crane, pres­i­dent of the Oak Spring Gar­den Foun­da­tion. “This is the first pub­lic glimpse” of the col­lec­tion, he said, “and it’s the tip of the ice­berg.”

The New York show be­gins in the li­brary’s ro­tunda with re­pro­duc­tions of enor­mous, trompe l’oeil pan­els by French painter Fer­nand Re­nard, com­mis­sioned by Mel­lon for the walls of her green­house. They fea­ture ob­jects meant to rep­re­sent her life and pas­sions. Al­though there is no gar­den com­po­nent of this win­ter show, the ro­tunda does fea­ture some of Mel­lon’s own liv­ing top­i­ary trees from Oak Spring.

“In ad­di­tion to be­ing an avid col­lec­tor of art, she trained her own top­i­aries,” said Su­san Fraser, vi­cepres­i­dent and di­rec­tor of the botan­i­cal gar­den’s li­brary.

Or­ga­nized chrono­log­i­cally and by theme, the ex­hibit be­gins with 14th cen­tury draw­ings from books per­tain­ing to gar­den­ing and agri­cul­ture. An­other sec­tion shows gor­geous images of tulips from the 17th cen­tury, when the de­mand for rare bulbs be­came so in­tense that some tulip va­ri­eties cost more than a house.

“They needed artists at that time to doc­u­ment what kinds of tulips were avail­able,” Fraser said. “And at one point, Mel­lon bought up bunches of these very rare tulip il­lus­tra­tions.”

The show also in­cludes hand-col­ored en­grav­ings by French artist Jac­ques LeMoyne de Morgues; flo­ral works by artists in the French royal court for King Louis XIV; and 18th cen­tury wa­ter­col­ors on vel­lum by Ger­man artist Ge­org Diony­sius Ehret. A volup­tuous 1737 Ehret paint­ing of a South­ern mag­no­lia stands out for its painstak­ing de­tail.

In an­other sec­tion is a wall of 17th cen­tury stud­ies of plants, in­sects, spi­ders, mol­lusks and rep­tiles by Jan Van Kes­sel the El­der.

“The Van Kes­sels are my fa­vorites,” Fraser said. “We sus­pect they were orig­i­nally built into a ‘Cabi­net of Cu­riosi­ties’ and were later framed in this way. They record what was prob­a­bly a real col­lec­tion and are so beau­ti­fully ren­dered.”

There are also 19th and 20th cen­tury works on pa­per and can­vas by artists in­clud­ing Henri Rousseau and Pablo Pi­casso.

One of the more re­cent works in the show is an Andy Warhol il­lus­tra­tion — and hand­writ­ten recipe — for a cook­book. En­ti­tled “Vine Leaf Mari­nade,” it’s a 1959 ink and wa­ter­color on pa­per.

Al­though there is no im­me­di­ate plan for the ex­hibit to travel beyond New York, Crane said an in­creas­ing num­ber of works from the col­lec­tion will be loaned to other ex­hibits around the coun­try. A small se­lec­tion is to be ex­hib­ited at the Yale Cen­ter for Bri­tish Art in New Haven, Con­necti­cut, start­ing in Fe­bru­ary.

Much of the vast col­lec­tion can be seen on­line on the foun­da­tion’s web­site, www.osgf.org.

This un­dated photo pro­vided by the New York Botan­i­cal Gar­den shows Ge­org Diony­sius Ehret’s “Mag­no­lia gran­di­flora (South­ern Mag­no­lia),” body­color on vel­lum, ca. 1737.


This un­dated photo pro­vided by the New York Botan­i­cal Gar­den shows Jan van Kes­sel the El­der’s “Still life study of plants, in­sects, arach­nids, mol­lusks, and rep­tiles,” 165358, Oil on cop­per.

This un­dated photo pro­vided by the New York Botan­i­cal Gar­den shows Andy Warhol’s “Vine Leaf Mari­nade,” ca. 1955, ink and wa­ter­color on pa­per.

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