Helen Allen is an internationally renowned botanical artist who has many years experience as a teacher of botanical art and illustration.
Once the owner and principal of the Chelsea School of Botanical Art, based in the Chelsea Physic garden, she now works from her studio in Ham where she paints and offers classes and masterclasses in botanical art and illustration.
Helen’s work was selected for inclusion in the Prince of Wales’s Highgrove Florilegium and can be found in the archives of the Hunt Institute, the Chelsea Physic Garden, Hampton Court Palace and the Kew Herbarium Library. She has exhibited her art in galleries in Europe and the USA.
Here then the Anthophile interview with the doyenne of botanical art.
Your three favourite flowers?
My favourite flower has to be the vigorous climber that is Cobeaea scandens, otherwise known as the 'cup and saucer vine.' The flowers are simply gorgeous, quite complicated but at every stage from bud to fruit there is something exciting to see. The purple flowers are like frilly skirts and turned inside-out the stamens look just like curly tassels. I’m also very fond of Rosa ‘Jacqueline du Pré’ and Agapanthus from deep blue to white.
Tell us about your childhood garden?
I was privileged to spend a lot of my childhood living overseas; I loved and remember best being in Kenya. For a time we lived in the shadow of Mount Kenya and had the most wonderful garden full of Jacaranda trees and Nandi Flame trees (Spathodea campanulata), also banks and banks of blue and white Agapanthus flowers. This garden was tended by the owners of the adjoining property. Everywhere else we lived my mother managed to create a small garden, often just using a knife and fork!
Who or what inspired your career choice?
Both my parents were able to draw and encouraged me from a very early age to draw and colour. As an only child it was almost a way of life. I was into drawing and painting horses and ice skaters. Flowers came later when I grew violets and carrots in another garden.
I took art classes at school. Later, my love of plants and art led me to study Botany and Art at A-level. I went on to study textile design at university and then I went into the teaching profession where early communication is through drawing and symbols. I only came to botanical art in my late forties. It took that long to find my niche.
What is a typical day in the life of Helen?
I am an early riser and like to get house things out of the way in good time. My husband is the breakfast chef and that for me is one of life's greatest luxuries - breakfast is the best meal of the day. After that who knows, it just depends on whether I'm writing, teaching, painting or answering huge numbers of emails from artists and tutors and interesting people from all over the world. By evening there is making supper: I love to cook fancy food but not everyday. I quite often watch box sets on ‘catch up’ TV. I like to be entertained so comedy is high on the list.
No garden is complete without …
a Wisteria. However small your garden there is always opportunity for one! Even a little pergola of some sort will support a fabulous specimen. The one I have is now probably 12 years old and is a white-flowered variety. Its scent is unbelievably exotic and when in bloom attracts huge numbers of bees that amuse and entertain with drunk and dizzy flights and tumbles.
Something we’d find:
On your bedside table: Mick Heron books - I have just finished Slough House. Herron is witty, amusing and writes beautifully. You will also find probably one or two wrinkled tubes of hand-cream.
In your flower arrangement: I love mixed flowers and loose arrangements. I very often find bits of twig and so forth that have come from the woods nearby; I particularly like pieces of holly and ivy that are great basis fillers for big vases of beautiful flowers. I also have foliage from my garden that'll find its way into flower arrangements.
In your garden shed: picnic baskets and picnic rucksacks abound
The flaw you wish you didn’t have?
Gosh, I'm sure there are many but the one that gives me and those around me the most stress is my ability to procrastinate on just about everything I do. Despite having lists and deadlines I work to the absolute limit. One day I may get it right.
What would you be in another life?
In another life, oh my goodness, I never think about other lives! I'm just deeply happy with the one I have.
To be generous in every way possible in sharing one's ideas, passions and ‘things’. When I was an infant school teacher we used to talk about ‘caring and sharing’ as being top of our daily ‘thoughts list.’ I think that is something we can all continue to do.
Who is a horticultural hero?
I love Alys Fowler.
What is the one flower or plant you’d never plant in your garden, but don’t detest when you see others plant it?
Probably variations on a theme of orange Mexican and French marigolds - I don't like the smell and I don't really like the colour. However to have hot orange plants in my late summer early autumn garden along with hot pinks can be very pleasing.
If there was a fire, and you could only keep one book on botanical art, what would it be?
I would take Illustrations of British Flora: a series of wood engravings, with dissections of British plants by Walter Hood Fitch and others published in 1924 and given to me by a dear friend and fellow botanical artist.
For posterity, what would you like your work to be known for?
Gosh, this is a hard one. I haven't really thought about this one either. I have loved teaching botanical art and I hope there might be a little niche for me in the list of those tutors that people have enjoyed working with.
My paintings are very often found in collections rather than being sold at exhibition and I prefer that. The thought that my grandchildren's' great-grandchildren may well see one of my paintings at Hampton Court, Chelsea Physic Garden or at Kew would really make my heart sing.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org @helenbotanicalartist
Quick fire: some favourite things
• Book: The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
• Film: South Pacific
• Painting: Four turnips by Elliott Hodgkin
• Smell: Roasting lamb
• Meal: Slow roast shoulders of lamb with garlic
• Travel Destination: French Alps
• A cause near and dear to me: Research to cancel cancer
• Place to go for inspiration: The Botanic Garden for Wales
• A great walk near where you live: Richmond Park
• Thing to collect obsessively: Boxes
• Museum: V&A
• Favourite person to follow on Instagram: (Mona Usher) @samaracuisine wonderful Lebanese and Middle Eastern cooking
• Garden in the UK: Trebah
• Garden anywhere else: Yves St Laurent Garden in Marrakesh