Shirley Sherwood

Meet botanical art collector Shirley Sherwood

Shirley Sherwood, the eponymous founder of one of Kew’s art galleries, on a childhood spent discovering plants through a giant magnifying glass and, more laterly, illustrations in a Bangkok hairdresser’s Words Hilary Burden, portrait Charlie Hopkinson

It is a measure of the drive of Shirley Sherwood, four years shy of 90, that despite suffering from the debilitating effects of lupus she is spending the week we meet moving paintings. Precious botanical artworks from her collection are being prepared for exhibition in the gallery that bears her name in the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. She is busy curating it from both her London and Oxfordshire homes, confessing: “It is almost my swan song.”

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From a collection of more than 800 works stored in climate-controlled, carpet-lined shelves, 150 paintings have been chosen for the show, and 270 for an accompanying book. All works were either commissioned or collected by Shirley over 30 years from more than 35 countries that she has visited, thanks to the railway and hotel interests of her shipping-magnate husband. The couple’s passions are inextricably entwined, a point Shirley acknowledges in her wry, matter-of-fact style.

Matt Collins
© Andrew Montgomery

“My husband was buying the Ritz in Madrid at the time,” she says, by way of explaining how she came across 6,000 paintings made by Indian artisans in South America that were shipped back to Spain in the 1880s. “It’s the thing about being lucky,” she says. “I made this collection of contemporary art when no one else was really interested.”

I made this collection of contemporary art when no one else was really interested

Shirley’s life-long love of plants began while visiting her godfather, the last Governor of British India’s North-West Frontier Province (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in Pakistan). “I was nine years old and had been given a large magnifying glass which opened up a whole new world,” she remembers. “The car would brake and I would make a frantic dash into the countryside to find out if that flash of colour was a ‘new’ specimen – or just new to me.”

Those childhood memories signal an advanced appreciation in a young mind of science and beauty. While Shirley went on to read Botany at Oxford, where the emphasis was on genetics and the new study of ecology – she also made time to explore the botany department’s other historical material, including the original works of 18th-century botanical artist Ferdinand Bauer.

After her degree Shirley spent several years working in drug development. Then in the 1980s, she started the Orient-Express magazine, a publication about the hotels and trains developed by her second husband, the British-based American businessman James Sherwood. While looking for inspiration for features, she attended a lecture on botanical painting at the Royal Horticultural Society by Dr Brinsley Burbidge. Shirley was hooked.

Her first purchase was a painting of wild orchids by Pandora Sellars, followed by commissions of plant portraits of her favourite plants grown at the family home in Hinton, Oxfordshire – an estate with origins back to the Norman Conquest.

Shirley cites artists Rory McEwen and Margaret Mee as early influences. For Shirley, Mee in particular has been formidable because of how the artist ventured alone into the Amazon rainforest to paint the plants she felt were endangered.“Some of the plants Mee painted have not been found again,” says Shirley.

I was nine years old and had been given a large magnifying glass which opened up a whole new world

Shirley’s embryo collection grew and travelled, first to Cambridge Cottage, Kew, then to the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation in Pittsburgh, then a roll call of other cities including New York, Tokyo, Sydney, Cape Town, Edinburgh and, at the invitation of the Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC.

In 2005 Shirley returned to her alma mater to curate an exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum. An elaborate jigsaw puzzle, matching and contrasting treasures once hidden in the University’s library with paintings from her own contemporary collection, it was one of the most popular exhibitions for years. In the wake of such success, and at the instigation of Peter Crane, former director of Kew, in 2008 the Sherwood family funded the building of the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art at Kew.

With her generous philanthropic spirit Shirley continues to embrace a variety of leading artists. She is still a global traveller, and still has the eye of a planthunter, discovering the work of the Thai artist Phansakdi Chakkaphak ten years ago when she spotted one of his paintings on the wall of a Bangkok hairdresser’s.

In 2012, Shirley was awarded an OBE for her services to botanical art and in August this year she was awarded the International Award of Excellence in Conservation 2019 from the Botanical Research Institute of Texas. A ginger plant relative – Globba sherwoodiana – has been named in her honour; a painting of it, presented to her by the National Museum of Natural History Smithsonian Institution for her services, now hangs within view of her office desk in Chelsea.

The gallery in Kew still gives just as much joy. Shirley will always check the latest guest book comments. One visitor loved a painting so much she wrote: ‘I may get it as a tattoo.’

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Modern Masterpieces of Botanical Art – The Shirley Sherwood Collection, is running at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. The Shirley Sherwood Collection – Modern Masterpieces of Botanical Art is published on 31 October by Kew Publishing, priced £35.