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BORN in County Waterford in 1804, William Howis Senior made many informal, delicate studies in pencil and watercolour of trees and plants and was a consistent exhibitor at the RHA until 1863 in which year he entered two pictures in one of the RHA’s exhibitions. According to a contemporary, “He (WH) found that the pictures had been removed from the place they had occupied and placed in an obscure position. He remonstrated and in a fit of indignation he cut the picture nearest to him from the frame and never exhibited again.”

This is just one anecdote from many in Patricia Butler’s book on Irish flower painters and botanical illustrators, some of whose works hang in the National Gallery of Ireland, which charts the triumphs, achievements, successes and failures of over 70 artists. These range from the unknown to the acclaimed and include Mary Delany, one of the 18th century’s most versatile artists who, as well as being an artist in oil and watercolour, was a fashion designer, creator of shell grottoes, a competent needlewoman and musician, and who at the age of 72 embarked on her famous Hortus Siccus, paper collages of flowers, continuing until she was 85. This 970-strong collection is now in the British Museum.

There are some glorious images in the Irish flower painters section from some of the best-known names: the Reverend Jack Hanlon’s highly decorative watercolour Fiery Leaves, c.1938, Elizabeth Corbet Yeats’ 1922 silk embroidered firescreen panel of a hollyhock-strewn country garden, designed by Elizabeth and made by her sister Susan Mary, David Wilson, the caricaturist’s watercolour, Flowers on a Windowsill, now in the V&A, Dermod O’Brien, “...a man who could never feel at ease in the Bohemian crowd” and his stiff Sulphur Carnations and, best of all, the one image by Grace Henry, once married to Paul Henry, an oil on board, White Roses, exhibited first in 1940, bold, bright and strong, now in the collection of the Pyms Gallery, London, specialists in Irish art.

Patricia Butler is the author of several books on Irish art; her major work, Three Hundred Years of Watercolours and Drawings, published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson is unfortunately out of print. In Irish Botanical Illustrators & Flower Painters there are two sections on botanical illustrators, with one covering botanical artists in the colonies, including Martha King, Mrs James Cookson, Andrew Nicholl and William Harvey. As the author says in her introduction, in Ireland few artists were interested in portraying on paper the flowers and natural vegetation around them, unlike in Britain.

This book, with the corpus of work held in public and private collections, gives us the exceptions. My gripe is: many of the picture captions do not quote the date painted, nor even a circa, and some of the scanning of those pictures is not tiptop.