The Many Colours of Stella Ross-Craig

This month, Dr Henry Noltie FLS writes about botanist Stella Ross-Craig's wonderful paintbox, which he has just donated to the Society.

Published on 13th March 2024

Close up of watercolour paint box: Yellow, Orange, Red

In 2003 when, at the age of 97, the great botanical artist Stella Ross-Craig had to go into a care home, it fell to her old friend and executor Bill Burtt to sort out the contents of her Richmond house. Though Stella thought of him as a youngster, Bill at the time was 90 and was helped in the sorting by his companion Olive Hilliard. During that time I joined them for a day. The house was incredibly primitive, its contents spartan, and a pervasive air of melancholy hung around the place. There were a few books of interest but very little by way of artwork. Stella had kept very little when she stopped drawing and painting around 1980. That was the time when she had to devote much of her time to caring for her husband, the Kew botanist J. Robert Sealy who was suffering from dementia.

By far the largest part of her remarkable life’s work was therefore already in the library of Kew, the base for most of her career, where she made drawings for Curtis’s Botanical Magazine (then published by the Royal Horticultural Society), for various Kew publications (including Hooker’s Icones Plantarum) and, on her own account, the uncoloured illustrations for her magisterial, multi-part Drawings of British Plants (of which Stella was proud to claim that no fewer than five Directors of Kew had been brought up). While line drawings remain her best-known work, Stella’s watercolours are also outstanding, not only for their meticulous draftsmanship, but for their rich, jewel-like colouring. It was for this reason that I was thrilled to be allowed to rescue one of her watercolour boxes that would otherwise have gone to a charity shop.

Close up of watercolour paint box: Blue

The box measures 198 x 75 mm, and is of japanned metal, probably tin-plated iron; its black enamel shows signs of heavy use. The lid is divided into three slightly raised, squarish sections and in the middle of the base is a hinged ring by which the box can be held in one hand. There is no manufacturer’s name.

Customised by Stella, the box contains 22 single small squares, and six rectangular, double pans of colour. The contents of each are heavily used and deeply eroded. The evocative names of the shades, some classical, others more recent, are written in Stella’s bold hand, in pencil, along the inner edges of the lid and the rectangular palette that unfolds from the box.

Close up of watercolour paint box: orange, brown, yellow

New Gamboge; Primrose Aureolin; Azo Lemon; Cadmium Orange; Burnt Sienna; Burnt Umber; Prussian Blue; Prussian Green; Ultramarine; Lamp Black; French Ultramarine.

Cadmium Deep Aurora; Naples Yellow; Indian Yellow; Vermillion; Light Red; Purple Madder; Yellow Ochre; Alizarin Crimson; Indigo; Rose Madder; Charcoal; Mauve.

Touchingly, the lid and palette still bear the last washes mixed from these colours by Stella forty years ago – greens and yellows in the lid; reds, blues and purples on the palette. An intriguing question: which plant might have formed her final subject?

Metal watercolour paint box

The time has now come to find a permanent home for the box. On discovering that the Linnean Society has the Reverend Keble Martin’s paint box among its collections, and that Stella was also a Fellow of the Society, a suitable harbour has now been found.

A Note On The Author

Dr Henry Noltie, FLS, is a botanist and historian. He previously worked as a curator and taxonomist for the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and has written extensively on botanical artists and artworks. Henry has done invaluable work identifying 18th- and early 19th century Indian botanical artists at RBG Kew, the Natural History Museum, and the Linnean Society.