Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 20, 2019

Blooms and Brushstrokes, A Floral History of Australian Art (2019), by Penelope Curtin and Tansy Curtin

I’ve been thinking about this latest beautiful book from Wakefield Press during my (almost) daily walk with Amber*…

You might think, with Melbourne in the depths of winter, that our suburban gardens would be a bit bleak.  But you’d be wrong: already there are jonquils and daffodils in the avenue; there’s a stunning white camellia lush with blooms next door; purple and white hardenbergias are weaving through the fence in our street’s most ambitious garden (created by a Vietnamese couple who are an inspiration to us all); on the trellis outside my library window there is one stubborn spray of white jasmine that has no business flowering in July; and there’s a wattle just about ready to burst into bloom — early next week, by the look of it.   I’ve tried photographing these gorgeous splashes of colour that brighten a dull day, but really, they need an artist to paint them…

And when it’s bucketing down, like it did last week, the flowers are outside, and I’m not.  Which is where this stunning book comes into its own.  Curled up by the fire, with a nice cup of tea and some crumpets, I’ve been reading Blooms and Brushstrokes with delight.

Created by mother-and-daughter team Penelope and Tansy Curtin, Blooms and Brushstrokes is an A-Z of flower types, as painted by Australia’s best practitioners of floral art, but also showcasing the art-historical trajectory of Australian art.  The task of selecting the artworks was difficult: still lifes were very popular in the first half of the 20th century and many of them were painted by well-known names: Nora Heysen, Vida Lahey, Adrian Feint and Margaret Preston.  Margaret Olley’s passion for painting flowers means that just about the whole book could have featured her still lifes.  But Bendigo Art Gallery curatorial manager Tansy, and her mother Penelope, a passionate gardener and freelance editor, wanted the book to be representative of the art canon as well as of the flowers.  So there also are beautiful artworks by artists you’ve probably never heard of.

And surprisingly, some flowers just didn’t make the cut.  The humble violet that makes its uninvited way under the banksia in our front garden hasn’t been featured in an art work of any note, and the same is true of the snowdrops which used to herald warmer weather in my mother’s Melbourne garden (before she debunked to the Gold Coast).  So the book skips from — Sweet Peas in ‘Floral Still Life’ (1917) by Horace Trenerry and ‘Tulips and Wild Hyacinths (c1920) by George Lambert which you can see here in the Art Gallery of NSW — to Lucien Henry’s ‘Waratah**’ (1887) ; Water Lilies in Riddle of the Koi (1994) by Yorta Yorta artist Lin Onus; and the Wisteria in the exquisite ‘Chatelaine’ by Robyn Stacey also in the Art Gallery of NSW.   (The book is worth having for this one photographic tableau alone.  I don’t often wish to be rich but I want this artwork.  I want it in my house, where I can see it every day.  I want this one too. And all of these — especially the one with the books.   (Maybe not the watermelon, I can get by without that one.)

The striking artwork on the front cover is by the Melbourne artist Polixeni Papapetrou who died in 2018 aged only 57.  The work is called ‘Blinded’, and it’s a portrait of her daughter Olympia, from a series called Eden. The series was commissioned by the Centre for Contemporary Photography, to create works that respond to the Melbourne General Cemetery:

These highly evocative works, created as Papapetrou contemplated her own mortality and the legacy she would leave, also explore the language of flowers and ‘the metamorphosis from child to adolescent and adolescent to adult, and a oneness with the world, fertility and the cycles of life.’ This transition was an ongoing theme throughout Papapetrou’s oeuvre, with the artist’s own daughter, Olympia, at times providing inspiration; this series includes portraits of Olympia and her friends.  In this work the crown imperials represent majesty, while the rose is the well-known symbol for love.

The Eden series also contains a strong religious or spiritual sensibility, appearing to allude to representations of catholic saints.  Blinded invites us to consider the stories of saints and the miracles they perform. The girls [in Papapetrou’s Eden series] are enclosed in a floral embrace that symbolises their unity and acceptance of this miraculous thing we call life. (p.80)

Fritillaria imperialis ‘Rubra Maxima’ (Wikipedia*)

The plant that’s featured is one I’ve never heard of: fritillaries, which are rare, especially the large and flamboyant crown imperials. They belong to the lily family, endemic to mountainous ares of Turkey, western Iran and east of Kashmir, but they were once grown in English cottage gardens.

Blooms and Brushstrokes is a sublime work of art.  My favourite pictures (after ‘Chatelaine’) have literary associations: one is Joshua Smith’s ‘Dame Mary Gilmore’ (1943) and the other is ‘Sitting Room, Mulberry Hill, (1927) by George Bell.  We have this one at the NGV, and it’s almost certain that the woman reading beside a sumptuous flower arrangement is Joan Lindsay herself.

But I also love the striking B&W photography of Viva Gillian Smith (‘Still Life with Daffodils’ 1995) and Max Dupain’s Angel’s Trumpet (‘Salvadorium Dalii, 1982), and  I’m impressed by the subtext in the internationally famous Indigenous artist Tracey Moffat’s Cherbourg No 1, from the ironically series Picturesque Cherbourg: stunning red ‘native’ bottlebrush not contained by the white picket fence.   There is so much to love in this book, it would make a beautiful gift, but it would take strength of character to actually give it away.

Highly recommended.

**I have to say that I much prefer Margaret Preston’s Waratahs.  She painted many of them, and we have one of the best in the NGV.  IMHO in the painting by Lucien Henry, the turquoise of the vase and the background compete with the rich ruby red of the waratah and leach out some of the colour.

* Just in case you didn’t know, (and any excuse to show off her cute and lovable self will do), this is Amber, an occasional guest reviewer here at ANZ LitLovers.

Image credit: Fritillaria imperialis ‘Rubra Maxima’ (Wikipedia) by mhaller1979 –, CC BY 2.0,

Authors: Penelope Curtin and Tansy Curtin
Title: Blooms and Brushstrokes, A Floral history of Australian Art
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2019, 210 pages, 23 x 28cm
ISBN: 9781743056493 (hbk.)
Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press

Available direct from Wakefield Press and from Fishpond: Blooms and Brushstrokes: A floral history of Australian art


  1. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.


  2. I’ve never heard of Fritillarias either, I must say, but it looks like the sort of plant I’d love. Our own garden doesn’t have a lot of colour at the moment except for our two gorgeous, fairly new, gold-coloured leucadendrons in our newly landscaped front yard. There are some red ones there too, but they are not big enough to be making a big splash yet. We also have a huge banksia in the side gardens. I love all these wonderful winter-flowering natives.

    The bulbs are all shooting in the back garden, but no flowers yet of course.

    All of which is to say, this does indeed sound like a lovely book.


    • There’s some lovely pale blue ones up our street too, a bit like a rosemary flower but on a different sort of bush. I don’t know what they are but the colour is lovely at this time of the year.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’d love to know what they are. You need that Plant App that is supposed to identify them using you phone camera I think though I hear it’s not so good with Aussie plants (which yours may or may not be, I suppose!)


        • Like everything else, I bet, designed in America for a homogenous world. I had one for recipe books, which in theory, meant you added all your recipe books and then when you couldn’t think what to cook with a quince, it would find all the recipes you had in your books. Oh yes, you could ‘add’ Aussie books if they weren’t in the database, but it was a process that took about half an hour or more each book, and all your time was spent improving their product at no cost to them.


          • Yes, I seem to recollect that recipe app. Of course, they’re the ones creating the apps and usually charging little for them? I can understand that they focus on what’s accessible (and known) to them? Who knows, maybe many of those American books were entered by users? I do think we have to accept that we are a small market, so we either contribute, recognising that it feels tough but adding to the database for other Aussies, or we create our own apps?! Wouldn’t it be great to have our Aussie recipe books indexed?!

            Liked by 1 person

            • Yes, it’s fair enough that they focus on where the market is. What’s not fair is selling the product as suitable for our market when it’s not…

              Liked by 1 person

  3. Sounds fascinating and the cover image is beautiful!


    • And arresting too, especially when you know the name of it.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I love flowers (and art), so perhaps I’ll spoil myself with a copy of this.
    Amber is very cute!


    • It’s such a nice book to browse through when you’re in the mood.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Me too. This ageing process is making me very indulgent. And Amber too is probably very indulged. Lucky little dog.


    • Amber, indulged? She was Marie Antionette in a past life, I think…


  6. A very thoughtful and generous review from Lisa Hill. My fritillaries — the much smaller acopetala and meleagris — in pots are just emerging, but my ‘true’ snow drops (galanthus) are already flowering, very beautifully and delicately. I’m a guest of Bendigo Writers’ Festival (9-11 August), speaking on Sunday 11 August at 11.15 on the topic of the language of flowers, should anyone wish to learn more about the secret life of flowers and, tangentially, their role in art (and everything else).


    • Hello Penelope, congratulations on a lovely book, it’s a real treasure:)


  7. Beautiful book and very happy you featured Amber.


    • She’s so gorgeous, isn’t she? Which reminds me, we’d better get today’s walk in, before it rains!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I have reserved a copy at the library. It looks beautiful.


    • Jennifer, you will find you don’t want to give it back to them!


  9. […] Nature: Blooms and Brushstrokes, A Floral History of Australian Art, by Penelope Curtin and Tansy Curtin (it’s not just about the art, it’s about the […]


  10. […] Blooms and Brushstrokes, A Floral History of Australian Art, by Penelope Curtin and Tansy Curtin […]


  11. […] Blooms and Brushstrokes, A Floral History of Australian Art, by Penelope Curtin and Tansy Curtin  […]


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