Vivien Wilson: botanical artist

Originally botanical illustration was a scientific method of making a highly accurate recording of the characteristics of plants.

Plant hunters have foraged in all corners of the globe for centuries and stories of their adventures during expeditions would put Indiana Jones to shame.

Even today there are still those with a passion for plants risking the threat of landslides, earthquakes, guerillas and border guards in their quest to find an undiscovered species.

For botanical artist Vivien Wilson, pictured, life is a little more genteel – although she does admit that she is known to be a raider of gardens in the village where she lives.

“My inspiration for my work comes from the countryside and during my walks around the fields surrounding my home I make sketches of wildflowers and trees as they change through the seasons.

“If I spot something that appeals to me, maybe seed heads, berries or even twigs, I will take it back to my studio.

“If I’m searching for something in particular then I may well raid one of my neighbours’ gardens – with their permission of course,” she said jokingly. “They all know what I do and are happy to help.”

Vivien’s studio overlooks her garden at her home in Ednaston, near Ashbourne, and is filled with jars of flowers and dried specimens all waiting for her to pick up a paintbrush.

The artist retired early from a career as the headteacher of a primary school and embarked on a graphic design degree course at the University of Derby so she could pursue her love of illustration work.

“I can’t remember a time when I haven’t drawn and painted. When I was three I used to draw on the walls at home and I always entered painting competitions at school. If anyone said anything of me then it was usually ‘Vivien Lancaster is a very good drawer’, which I suppose says it all,” she laughed.

As a teacher she enjoyed developing the children’s artistic abilities but it was the joy of working on her first illustration job while still teaching that led to her decision to change career.

“Together with history research colleagues I was commissioned to draw items from the Devonshire Collection at Chatsworth for an educational book. It was so fascinating being allowed to wander the corridors of the house when it was closed to visitors. I was able to draw such things as the Canova Lions and the colossal marble foot. That experience really was a turning point for me.”

After completing her degree Vivien enrolled herself on a course with the renowned botanical painter Anne Marie Evans who has been awarded an MBE for her services to the arts and education.

“I knew she was one of the best tutors and knowing the course was available I really wanted to go. I swanned in never having done anything like it before, but by the end of it had decided it was something I could do and something I wanted to do.

“The course really opened my eyes and inspired me and moved me on to a much higher level of painting.

“I think Anne could see I had flair and she put a lot of time into helping me. I learned such a great deal and botanical art has been my main focus ever since.”

Vivien, who is a member of the Peak District Artisans describes her work as an accurate observation of the character of plants.

“However I am more interested in the arrangement than I am the precise detail and I like wilder-looking, more informal plants,” she said.

So far her most important commission has been illustrating 76 trees for posters and a tree identification app for The Woodland Trust. She had to paint three images of each tree – winter, summer, and leaf, blossom and fruit detail.

Vivien’s work is being exhibited at Chatsworth House, with the PDA, until March 17. She’s taking part in  Derbyshire Open Arts at Beechenhill Farm, Ilam, in May and will be at the PDA’s Great Dome Art Fair in Buxton in July.