Valuable as pressed specimens are, good images of living material are extremely useful in supplementing specimens of cultivated plants. They are particularly effective for recording both the colour of the living plant and its natural habit; features that cannot be demonstrated by the dried specimen.
The Herbarium image collection has more than 3,300 original watercolours, approximately 30,000 colour slides and a rapidly increasing number of digital images, the majority of which are plant portraits of an individual species or cultivar.
The Herbarium’s collection of watercolour paintings illustrates plants given awards by one of the RHS plant committees following an exhibition or a trial at one of the RHS gardens. Dating back to 1920, the paintings often depict plants that were new to horticulture at the time of painting.
The artists commissioned by the RHS include Winifred Walker and Stella Ross-Craig, both highly respected in the field of botanical art.
From the 1940s, with the wider availability of quality cameras, black and white photography started to replace paintings as the medium for recording the plants. Colour slides replaced black and white, and these make up the majority of the slides in the Herbarium collection.
Although most of the images have been supplied by photographers commissioned by the RHS, the archive includes a substantial number of slides from the Harry Smith Collection and Plant Heritage National Plant Collection holders.
New photographs are added to the collection by staff, volunteers and commissioned photographers on an almost daily basis. Only digital images are now taken, although donations of historic slide collections are still accepted.
New images are chosen to depict cultivated plant portraits, and generally come from the RHS gardens, trials and shows. Donated images also come from registrants, breeders and National Plant Collection holders. Many of these can be designated as nomenclatural standards.
Future plans include having many of the Herbarium’s pressed specimens themselves photographed to make them available to a wider audience. Also, as only a proportion of the existing slide collection has been digitised, the process of having the remainder of this collection scanned is underway.
Use of images
As images are catalogued, they are uploaded to the RHS image collection database, from where they are available to RHS staff for search and selection.
Both slides and paintings have been used in a wide range of publications, both online and in printed material. They are frequently requested for illustrating items in RHS magazines - The Garden, The Plantsman and The Orchid Review - and provide a large number of the images for RHS Plant Selector.
Currently, plans are being drawn up to develop a commercial image library available to the general public, for which the Herbarium image collection expects to contribute a significant number of high quality, accurately named plant portraits.