There is a fascinating story to be found at the “English Garden” exhibition now on at the Panasonic Shiodome Museum — that is if you look closely. That tale is of botanical imperialism, namely the desire by the expansionary spirit of the British Empire to send artists and botanists to far-flung, exotic lands to draw, paint, record, collect and occasionally transplant various plant species to new environments.
The center of this major operation was the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew — now a spacious green area, with capacious green houses and the odd exotic structure, all in the rather noisy flight path of Heathrow Airport. But back in the 18th and 19th centuries, the gardens served as a base for the study of plant species that might have some economic benefit to the Empire. Accordingly, this exhibition uses Kew Gardens, as its more commonly known, as a unifying motif for a range of botanical art, as well as a few connected items, such as beautiful plant-based designs and fabrics by William Morris (1834-96)
The design of the exhibition space is by the Tokyo-based architects Klein Dytham, and it echoes the Princess of Wales Conservatory, a sprawling collection of greenhouses in Kew Gardens.
As you would expect, there are illustrations showing scenes from Kew Gardens and a few portraits of botanical worthies, including Charles Darwin, whose theories of evolution developed from comparing different species around the world, and Joseph Banks (1743-1820), a President of the Royal Society, an organization dedicated to scientific progress.
Banks made his name as a botanist on one of Captain Cook’s voyages and was a pivotal figure in botanical science. Here he is shown in a formal lithograph and a caricature by James Gillray as “The great South Sea Caterpillar, transform’d into a Bath Butterfly” (1795). This shows him ennobled with the Order of the Bath and satirically transformed from a drab caterpillar into a resplendent butterfly.
Banks was also the man behind Captain Bligh’s famous voyage to the South Seas to bring back breadfruit trees, an expedition that famously ended in mutiny. But this exhibition fails to highlight this interesting narrative, or other significant and fascinating tales of botanical imperialism, such as Britain’s introduction of rubber plants to Malaya or tea plants to India.
Instead the focus of the exhibition is more on the kinds of flowers that visitors to the exhibition can enjoy identifying, such as tulips or rhododendrons, a plant originally from the Himalayas. This bias in image selection and themes suggests that the exhibition is aimed at a particular demographic, namely women of a certain age with a fondness for flowers and less interest in the botanical history of the British Empire.
But that story is also there — if you look for it.
“English Garden — The Royal Botanic Gardens Kew: Showcase for Flowers and Plants of the World” at the Panasonic Shiodome Museum runs until March 21; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. ¥1,000. Closed Wed. panasonic.co.jp/es/museum