Exhibition | The Hidden Lives of Plants: Botanical Illustrations from the V&A

The Hidden Lives of Plants: Botanical Illustrations from the V&A

22 June – 10 November 2024

The Pea Tribe, about 1849 – 55, by Elizabeth Twining. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

There are almost 1,000 botanical illustrations in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s collection – ranging from scientific diagrams documenting medicinal plants to merchandising images that adorn seed packets. Many of these illustrations also exist as objects of beauty in their own right. They depict flowers and plants that have, over the centuries, had their own particular uses and values: the common-or-garden foxglove, harvested for centuries for its life-saving – although, also if taken in excess, lethal – sap; the flamboyant tulip, whose bulbs became tokens of trade and financial speculation, worth more than their weight in gold in the 17th-century Dutch Republic; and the sunflowers, grown to clear radiation at Chernobyl – among many other examples.

Some of these histories are well-known; others are now more obscure. The talented University of Birmingham MA Art History and Curating students developing this exhibition have selected some of the most intriguing and beautiful botanical illustrations from the V&A’s collection, – as well as items from the University of Birmingham’s Winterbourne House and Garden and Cadbury Research Library – to tell these stories. The images have been selected on the grounds of the beauty and biographies of the plants, and offer valuable insights on the roles these alluring and complex living creatures played in medicine, commerce, gender roles and colonial histories. Their research is presented throughout the exhibition in conversation with contributions from gardeners and natural scientists, social scientists and curators, revealing the fascinating and often unexpected lives of plants – and the images that represent them.

This is the first project in a new annual exhibition partnership between the Barber, the V&A and the University’s Department of Art History, Curating and Visual Studies. The Hidden Lives of Plants will be enhanced by a programme of engagement events for all ages, including a nature-themed family art festival in August and a series of gallery talks.