Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Emma Tennant, Botanical Artist

Many years ago I took a class on botanical watercolors. It was a humbling experience. But I was excited to try it out since I have never had any skill as an artist. I enjoyed the challenge. For one week we studied our subject and were instructed in the art of botanical watercolor painting. I learned about looking and seeing the flower (mine was a fuchsia) as I'd never done before. I loved mixing colors and painting with watercolors. But I was amazed at how difficult it was to capture my subject. To this day I stand in admiration of those artists who are able to render beautiful representations of nature's beauties. And every time I see an accomplished botanical painting I remember how challenging it was to paint that flower!

With spring around the corner, I've been thinking about gardens and looking at botanical art. I have read that the ability to capture the essential nature of a plant lies at the heart of the best botanical art. And lately there's one name I've been drawn to: British artist Emma Tennant. Her delicate watercolors are beautiful and have a freshness and immediacy that makes them stand out. Although I've never seen her work in person, I am now completely in love with it. Since she recently had a show in London, there has been a lot of press on her and I have been enchanted with everything I have seen and read. Here are some of the highlights:

She is part of the storied Mitford family and grew up on the estate of Chatsworth House which her parents inherited when she went off to college. She is the daughter of the youngest Mitford sister, Deborah. Her daughter is the well-known model Stella Tennant. Her other daughter Isabel is a gifted gilder and with Stella runs Gilded Pleasures by Tennant & Tennant. They produce a handmade collection of gilded lamps, mirrors and carved flowers. Their mother Emma has been gardening most of her life, studied painting in college, but only took it up seriously after her children were born. Her love of gardening and her talent as a botanical artist go hand in hand.

She spent her childhood at Edensor, a family house on the Chatsworth estate in Derbyshire. The garden on the estate was a big part of her life. While at Oxford she painted and drew at the Ruskin School of Art. She married Toby Tennant and they bought a neglected farm in the Scottish borders and restored it. After having three children and setting up the farm, Tennant converted a small outbuilding into a studio and began her career as an artist there. Her experience as a gardener was key to her success as a painter. She knew the plants as only a gardener would. Her painting style is unique and deeply influenced by the flowing technique of Chinese and Japanese artists. Because their art was on scrolls or screens rather than contained in books or frames, they were able to do great flowing lines. She decided to incorporate this looseness into her art by using absorbent Japanese paper which allows her brushstrokes to bleed into the surface. This gives her paintings a distinctive look.

Take a look at some of her watercolors.  I think you will agree that they capture the essential nature of the plants, which is what the best botanical art does. And they are full of joy and poetry.

Emma Tennant describes her art as "botanical accuracy with a free line." What a perfect description. Most of her watercolors are framed by her daughter Issy who has been a gilder for 30 years. I loved learning about this inspiring family of women, their art and the Chatsworth connection. Hailing from Deborah Mitford, Chatsworth was an influence on all of them. Emma was affected by the garden and daughter Isabel was affected by the beautiful carved flowers she discovered at the Chatsworth attic sale, bringing this concept into her gilding business. I learned that Chatsworth is famous for many garden and architectural features, including its gilding which adorns the rooms and even the window frames on the outside of the house. It seems that both Emma and her daughters discovered their artistic calling through the legacy of this great house. What a remarkable group of women and artists. Next time I have an opportunity I will make a beeline to see Emma Tennant's art.

Images via here, here, and here


  1. This is fascinating, Sunday. I knew of Emma Tennant, but, not of her connection to Chatsworth and, of course, the Duchess, Deborah, whom I adored reading, both about her and her own books. These are lovely botanicals. Lovely to observe on a very cold day here.

  2. Sunday, Thank you for the introduction to Emma Tennant and interesting family, I was unaware of her gorgeous work.

  3. Sunday, I loved reading about Emma Tennant and her art. Her work is lovely. I love watercolors and play with them frequently. I find them so much more forgiving than other mediums. I hope you are having a wonderful week.

  4. What a fascinating post. I knew about Stella Tennant, but not about her mother. The botanicals are so beautiful, not overdone, as you said have a "freshness and immediacy" which I love. I'm off to see if there's a book with her botanicals. Beautiful!!!

  5. What a fascinating article Sunday! I didn't know much about Emma Tennant - what a fascinating history! I love her watercolours too and will have to keep an eye out for another exhibition in London. Miranda xxx

  6. There are some of her paintings in the Sotheby's Duchess of Devonshire auction: