Book Review: Blooms and Brushstrokes, by Penelope Curtin and Tansy Curtin

A unique journey through the history of Australian art, one flower at a time, from early illustrations through to modern day art.

By
A floral history of Australian art with plenty to inspire the budding gardener.
Overall
5

Launched by Wakefield Press in winter, this delightful book is a great read on a grey day – packed full of wonderful pictures and details of the role of flowers in Australian art. There is certainly plenty to inspire the budding gardener to wish for better weather and to be able to enjoy such blooms in their own garden. Mother and daughter team of Penelope and Tansy Curtin are well qualified to produce such a book. Tansy is an art curator in Bendigo and her mother is a freelance editor and a keen gardener.

Organising the book as an A-to-Z of floral types encourages the reader to pick out their favourite blooms such as the always-popular roses or lilies and to see how they have been painted by different artists at different times. Beginning with the transplanted European style of paintings from colonial times, the authors present us with a brilliant range of examples of the myriad ways flowers have been depicted in art.

In the Introduction there is the c.1820 botanical painting of a waratah by Joseph Lycett and how strange that plant must have seemed to the artist. Just a few pages further on we see Marian Ellis Rowan’s c.1889 work Anemones which is described as being somewhere between botanical illustrations and fine art. Rowan was a successful artist of her time but the more decorative still life of flowers came to be preferred over her scientific representational style.

We can see this in George Lambert’s 1920s Tulips and Wild Hyacinths which has a much freer, looser arrangement of flowers and includes fallen blossoms on the table and highlights the artist’s skill depicting water and reflections in the glass jug and vase. One delight of this book is not only do we see the wonderful collection of all types of floral art but we can also learn some of the history of the plant and get tips on how to grow them. Tulips, native to Turkey, were introduced into Europe in the tulip mania of the 17th Century. In areas of Australia with warm winters, gardeners can trick the bulbs into growth by storing them in the fridge before planting.

With such a wealth of styles and artists there is something for everyone in this book – whether your interest is art, flowers or decorative interiors. Not only are there ‘traditional’ art works but we also find wonderful modern pieces such as the 2016 Blinded by Polixeni Papapetrou, the cover image for the book, and shows a photograph from the late artist’s Eden series as her daughter is ‘enclosed in a floral embrace’ with flowers on the walls, her clothes and across her eyes.

This book continues the sterling tradition of Wakefield Press producing high quality books, with brilliantly reproduced art works. Whatever your level of knowledge of art or flowers, you will enjoy this work.

Reviewed by Jan Kershaw

Distributed by: Wakefield Press
Released: May 2019
RRP: $65 hardcover

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