A visit to Cannon Hall near Barnsley in South Yorkshire is not complete without taking in the magnificent 70 acres of newly renovated parkland surrounding the stately home, furnished with lakes, waterfalls, follies and vistas, a Victorian pleasure grounds, and a Georgian walled garden. Here, within the sheltering enclosure, grows the Cannon Hall Historic Pear Collection, featuring over 40 varieties of pear tree; alongside which the museum’s upcoming exhibition of watercolours by Elisabeth Dowle, one of the most respected and talented Botanical Artists of our time, is perfectly ‘paired’ (sorry).
Pears & Apples features a series of beautifully rendered life-size plates by Dowle based on specimens from the National Fruit Collection in Kent, which holds the largest fruit collection in the world, with over 3,500 named Apple, Pear, Plum, Cherry, Bush fruit, Vine and Cob Nut cultivars. Owned by Defra (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), it forms part of an international programme to protect plant genetic resources for the future. As the number of orchards in the ‘Garden of England’ has fallen dramatically by 85% over the last few of years, its role in species preservation is a vital one.
The practice of botanical illustration first emerged centuries ago as a means of assisting with species identification between regions and languages before the introduction of taxonomy. Yet it has persisted throughout the ages as an art form in itself, the talented master being, like Dowle, one who can strike a perfect balance between accuracy and an idealised fusion of several specimens with grace. Today, there has been a notable resurgence of interest in the genre, perhaps as the worsening environmental crisis is slowly beginning to alert us to the value of slower, more traditional approaches and the need to learn from and conserve the rapidly disappearing natural world around us.
Several of the images included in Pears & Apples at Cannon Hall have also been used to illustrate two important new compendiums: The Book of Pears: The Definitive History and Guide to Over 500 Varieties by Dr. Joan Morgan, and The New Book of Apples: The Definitive Guide to Over 2,000 Varieties by Morgan and Alison Richards. Both publications and Dowle’s artistic practice overall (for which she has received numerous horticultural prizes and awards) provide a welcome reminder of the value to be gained through close study, and of the beauty to be found within a simple piece of fruit.