Research Trip: Kew Gardens

As part of my ‘Me and Mary Eleanor’ project for The Bowes Museum #untitled10 exhibition I did a couple of research trips. I accessed some funding from Sunderland Culture research and development fellowship so that I could go to some gardens that I otherwise would not have been able to visit. Creativity doesn’t just come out of thin air. Research and lived experience are so important to make art more substantial and relevant than simple ornamentation. (On occasion I identify as a militant ornamentalist but for this project it was imperative to delve deeper).

The journey to Kew Gardens was lovely until I hit London. The Tube was off and the replacement bus was a big lolling sardine can full of fellow grumpy travellers. Some of the people were nice though. I think more strangers talked to me this time than any other time in London. So, it wasn’t too bad. I met a really friendly cat near the hotel as well.

I travelled in on one day, stayed overnight, and walked in to Kew Gardens for when it opened. Armed only with a camera, an orange and a bottle of water, I set about the task of walking around as much of the gardens as possible.

The exotic garden at Kew Park, formed by Henry, Lord Capell of Tewkesbury, was enlarged and extended by Augusta, Dowager Princess of Wales, the widow of Frederick, Prince of Wales. The origins of Kew Gardens can be traced to the merging of the royal estates of Richmond and Kew in 1772.


In the Georgian era Kew Gardens as it is today didn’t exist, but as the above passage from wiki concludes it was starting to become itself in a mergence of estates in 1772. This was in Mary Eleanor Bowes lifetime, and it helps me to understand the wonder and reverence for new botanical discoveries in that time. Britain was branching out and continuing to build colonies that provided new resources including plants.

In the lower classes herbalists were using simple plant based remedies of native species to treat all kinds of ailments. As we well know today, a sad consequence of such work sometimes resulted in an accusation of witch craft. But, Sir Francis Bacon in the previous century had already begun to extoll the virtues of the scientific method. Moving away from the oral traditions of folk healers and towards the modern scientific method that we now recognise today.

I know that flowers and plants can often be seen by some as a particularly female interest. Especially in photography! (Twitter conversation). However, the knowledge of plants and herbs in fields such as medicine, textiles, and agriculture are fundamental to our comfortable existence now. Overlooking or belittling interest in these things, especially in this age of climate crisis, seems profoundly silly to me.

I recently discovered an MIT artist/scientist called Neri Oxman who is combining art science and engineering to create new materials. Growth rather than assemblage. Looking to nature, natural processes, and chemical reactions in nature. I think we still have a lot to learn from this and I am glad that someone is leading the charge! Her process is where the gardens and hothouses of the past meets head on with modern technological insight.

You can still see my final artwork in The Bowes Museum until 28 Feb 2020. After that I am hoping to start conversations about bringing the artwork back to Sunderland to showcase it there.

Leave a Reply