The Breckland Project

After fifty years as a field botanist, I still feel a rising feeling of anticipation whenever I see the lines of contorted Scots pines that mark the Breckland landscape. Here I came looking for botanical rarities as a young botanist, scouring the patches of heathland and the field margins and the wilder roadside verges for the plants found here and nowhere else in England. I had come over from the lush green pastureland of Cheshire to a completely different world of clear skies and intense light, of sandy and chalky soils, of unfamiliar crops like rye, and of flowers known to me only from books. And I remember my excitement at finding two rare catchflies, the diminutive Silene conica amongst the low grasses and the bold upstanding inflorescences of Spanish catchfly Silene otites waving in the breeze on a verge. 

But it is not only the rarities that excite you here in the Breckland. The common flowers like the poppies and viper’s bugloss also take on an unexpected brilliance in the clear air and open flatlands. Now in this book we can enjoy these botanical treasures captured by superb illustrations, contributed by the members of the Iceni Botanical Artists. This book is a Florilegium, a gathering of flowers. In Medieval times this Latin term was used for a writings brought together, and a music consort now uses the term to indicate its own gathering of our rare and precious musical heritage. Later, when coloured illustration become commoner the meaning broadened to include collections of flower paintings. We now reserve the same word but in Greek—‘anthology’, knowledge of flowers for collections of poems and prose. This book is very special, since it is a record of the floral diversity of the unique landscape of Breckland through art, the first of its kind and including both the incredibly rare Breckland specialities and the commonplace eye-catchers all around us. 

Botanical art is itself a remarkable thing—it is a bridge between art and science. In a botanical picture, we view the whole piece and enjoy its design, its composition, the use of colour and shading as we would in any artwork, but we look for more. The illustration should be an accurate representation of a plant in detail, so that a botanist can use it for identification, or confirmation of an idea. So we need details of floral structures, the shapes of petals and sepals, even the depiction and distribution of hairs on the species. In this way, the illustration is also a scientific document, recording the artist’s painstaking scrutiny of the plant, and stands alongside a written description prepared by a botanist as a definitive record of the diversity of nature. 

In this beautiful book we have wonderful art and an aid to scientific identification, but we have more. Take a tiny green flower, almost at the limit of your vision, magnify it many times and then record what you see. The artists here have revealed to us the beauty of this world of flowers that, due to our own narrow view, is normally hidden. So botanical art at its finest transcends both the scientific excellence and artistry—see some of the Breckland rarities illustrated here to comprehend this. It has been an enormous pleasure for me to enjoy the development of this collection of Breckland floral paintings by the Iceni group over the years, and in a small way to contribute by helping facilitate a magnificent exhibition held in Clare Hall, University of Cambridge, in 2015. Now I can see and enjoy the Breckland flora every day in this magnificent book. The Iceni Artists are to be congratulated on their achievements in art and in science. John Parker (Emeritus Professor, Clare Hall, Cambridge)

The inspiration to paint the wild flowers of Breckland followed the publication of the UK Biodiversity Audit by the UEA in 2010. It identified that nearly one third of the UK’s Biodiversity Action Plan Species are to be found in the Brecks, with 56 Sites of Special Scientific Interest, 4 National Nature Reserves and 26 Rare and endangered plants. Many members of Iceni Botanical Artists lived in or close-by to Breckland and it seemed a natural and necessary project to take on, although photographs of the plants were being publicised in pamphlets and local press, no botanical body of work could be found depicting a comprehensive collection of paintings with such attention to botanically accurate detail. It took three years to produce the 45 watercolours and many difficulties were experienced. We are grateful to the help given by local botanist Yvonne Leonard, an expert on the Breckland area and its plants, who identified plants and growing sites, and in some instances, allowed us use of the plants naturally growing in her garden. Many of the plants are very small, growing close to the ground on the poor sandy Breckland soils and required not only the morning sun to open the minute flowers, but also magnifying lenses to secure the drawings. 

The Project has aimed at taking the paintings on travelling exhibitions around Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk and the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS), London, throughout 2016/17 and also to publish an accompanying book that could also act as a catalogue to the exhibitions. None of this would have been possible without the enthusiasm, expertise and donation of time by Iceni Botanical Artist members, and funding support generously given by The Finnis Scott Foundation, The Breckland Society, The John Jarrold Trust and Mr Bernard Tickner of Fuller’s Mill Garden, to all of whom I offer my sincere and grateful thanks. 

When exhibited at the Royal Horticultural Society in 2016 the paintings included in this book received a Silver Gilt Medal.

Isobel Bartholomew, Iceni Botanical Artists