Lydia Jackson catches up with Sarah Jane Humphrey, Founder of Falmouth’s Botanical Atelier…
Artist Sarah Jane Humphrey captures both the value and beauty of nature through her hyperrealist botanical compositions in what can be described as a celebration of plants.
Since graduating from Falmouth University as a young adult, Sarah’s talent and distinctive style has made her a coveted artist within her field and outside of it. Her portfolio includes commissions for an impressive array of clients including: The Royal College of Physicians, McGraw Hill, The Eden Project, Twitter and the Royal Horticultural Society. One of her most recent projects has been illustrating Brewdog’s botanical rum.
Nestled into Falmouth’s bustling high street, Sarah is about to celebrate the first anniversary of her store, Botanical Atelier. I say store, but in reality it is much more than this; it is a hybrid space: part gallery, part shop, part workshop. Here, she showcases and sells her work and holds weekly sessions to allow members of the general public to learn about botanical illustration and try their hand at both drawing and watercolour in one of the most beautiful parts of the country.
The space she has created boasts breathtaking views of the River Fal, famous for its sailing heritage, and the opportunity to lap up the tranquil calm of the world’s third deepest natural harbour. As I sat down to begin one of Sarah’s workshops it became clear that her atelier had built upon this calm to cultivate a feeling of pure relaxation.
Speaking to Sarah, her warm personality and friendly demeanor shine through. It is clear that she cares about people being able to take some time out for themselves. “This makes you slow down” she explains. “You have to do it slowly. I am trying to give people another insight into what they are doing.”
An avid paddleboarder, Sarah recognises the importance of freeing the mind and relaxing. This is all part of the experience she aims to create as part of her workshops: “I’ve worked really hard with curating every single little space in here. It is designed to be calm, inspiring and to encourage curiosity”. There is no doubt that Sarah has succeeded in creating such a space. The intimate setting with groups no larger than six, seated around a table scattered with foliage, paintbrushes and pencils is complemented by the morning light streaming through the windows and the sound of gentle background music. This, combined with the scent of paint, herbal tea and the lingerings of incense burnt previously produce an essence of pure tranquility and focus. Each of us attending the workshop was captivated by our task of drawing and painting ginkgo leaves, so much so that the two hours passed without a thought towards our real-life responsibilities. Nonetheless, we all came away feeling like we’d learnt something.
Through studying Sarah’s work it becomes apparent that she is mesmerised by intricacies and detail. It is also evident that Sarah enjoys telling a story as part of what she does and has a particular interest in the medicinal qualities of plants and traditional techniques. Whilst we were talking, she collected a pile of oak galls from the side and explained to me, “Their composition is altered from acorns by gall wasps laying their larvae inside of them. I actually use oak gall ink foraged by a local ink maker in some of my work. It’s a great technique and is the method traditionally used by monks.” Smiling, she continues, “I like there to be meaning behind everything, rather than just a generic product. It’s the whole deal; something that’s interesting, an experience and makes you feel good.” Even the publications that Sarah both sells and decorates her walls with are thoughtfully selected and carefully organised. “I want things to be aesthetically pleasing but in a purposeful way. I want them to be beautiful but also practical”.
Perhaps what makes Sarah stand out from other botanical artists, is her ability to transcend the boundaries between art and science. Much of Sarah’s work is created as part of competition entries using Fibonacci codes. This includes her exhibition of ‘Medicinal Plants and their Symbiosis with Pollinators’, for which the Royal Horticultural Society awarded her a Gold Medal in the 2018 Botanical Art Show in London. “Botanical illustration is one of the oldest art forms, dating back to the recording of plants by physicians for medical purposes,” she reveals. “I find the medicinal purposes of plants fascinating and like there to be more longevity and purpose to the pieces I create, as well as for them to be something beautiful.” As a result, Sarah has had her own book Botanical Art with Scientific Illustration published and has also contributed towards a book celebrating the 400th anniversary of the Royal College of Physicians.
Sarah’s impressive achievements and expertise do not end here. She has also run workshops at Port Elliot Festival, Truro Arts College and St Ives School of painting – a space where some of the world’s most famous artists including Rothko and Barbara Hepworth have worked. She has also run a number of open studio events. Yet despite all of this, Sarah is extremely humble. “It’s important to both learn and educate as part of the process,” she explains.
“A lot of botanical illustrators are happy being on their own in the studio, but I learn so much from sharing my work with other people. It makes me analyse things and reflect on what I’m doing.”
It is also apparent that through all that she does she has huge respect for nature: “It’s important to me that I inspire people to appreciate nature more. There’s something brilliant about being more in touch with nature and realising that after all, everything is plant-based.” This wholesome ethos is something that resonates through her art, her workshops and Botanical Atelier.