A little note on the origins of my flower-painting journey

Flora of Malaysia


In the mid-eighties, I was lucky enough to spend four years in Malaysia with my family.  At this time, I was totally absorbed with botanical watercolours and was delighted to discover the rich flora of the tropics. 

After a year or so of painting my new garden finds, I was inspired to take my work further and had in the back of my mind a dream to make a book of paintings depicting this fascinatingly rich and diverse material.  Serendipitously, I came across a small flyer advertising a lecture given by one Dr. David. T. Jones, a professor of botany at the university.  The lecture was on his focus of interest, a particular species of lime, and I went along in the full realisation that I’d be totally out of my depth but with one aim, to speak to him.  The lecture hall was full of students and, I got a lot of quizzical looks. I have to admit the subject matter went largely over my head, peppered as it was with botany jargon and assumptions of knowledge.  As for Dr. Jones, I had in my mind a bearded serious man of sixty plus years, complete with bow-tie and waistcoat.  I was quite surprised to find a thirty-something Californian with a relaxed presence and a wicked sense of humour.  I tentatively approached him at the end of the lecture and said I had an idea I wanted to run by him.  The next day we met and I pitched my concept of a coffee table book, illustrating the country’s beautiful plants – all I needed was some expert text.  He liked the idea. We met with Oxford University Press and their wonderful editor was very welcoming and enthusiastic about the project.  We signed contracts and work commenced. 

Over the next two years I worked furiously on the project, painting in the spare bedroom when family life allowed.  Some of my subject matter was available in gardens but most had to be strategically sought out.  I painted in ditches, mangroves, gardens and jungles.  Occassionally, I was lucky enough to accompany David’s team of botanists on a research trip into the virgin rainforest.  It was stunningly beautiful but quite nerve-wracking for a snake-phobic Brit!  When this wasn’t possible the plants would come to me.  The sound of the clapped-out botany department’s van trundling up my drive would see me scrabbling to make space in the fridge for more material. 

I spent one night painting a flower which only every flowers after dark, the aptly named Queen of the night.  I had one chance only as it was a year-long wait for the flower and it was all over by dawn.  Another memorable paint was the stinking  Amorphophallus,  whose reputation for emitting the worst smell imaginable was no exaggeration. 

Once the paintings were scanned for the book, I was able to hold an exhibition of the originals (opened by the Minister for Culture) which was a sell-out success.  Win, win.   

The culmination of all this hard work was a beautiful book of which I am very  proud.  Sadly, it being a rather niche subject and expensive product, after a successful print run it has now been discontinued.

2 replies
  1. Prue Furse-Roberts
    Prue Furse-Roberts says:

    Hi Penny
    Enjoyed reading the above as it was this book that first attracted me to your stand at a Christmas Fair in Whittlebury, many years ago. Having grown up in Malaya in the 50’s and 60’s it was nostalgic for me to see it and chat to you.
    All the best for a freer year of painting,


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