Azalea Paintings by Anne Ophelia Dowden
F. C. Galle,
Director of Horticulture Callaway Gardens, Pine Mountain, Ga.
Callaway Gardens unveiled three paintings of native azaleas by Anne Ophelia Dowden at the formal opening of the new conservatory in late October, 1971. An artist whose specialty is flowers, Anne Dowden is considered to be one of America's leading botanical artists and has won wide recognition as an authority on the subject. One reason for this is her dedication to scientific accuracy. Working only from nature, she often makes extensive field trips in order to draw from live specimens. Mrs. Dowden relies on the medium of transparent water colors, which are imminently well suited to the delicacy of the azaleas and other floral material. Floral painting for Mrs. Dowden requires some special arrangements, however, since she is a resident of New York City. It does not boast an abundance of wildflowers and she is hesitant to leave the metropolis because of illness in the family.
FIG. 60. Azalea paintings by Anne Ophelia Dowden.
(L) R. calendulaceum and (R) R. canescens.
When the azalea project was initiated in the Spring of 1971, the first step was to select the three azaleas to be painted for Callaway Gardens. The major emphasis was to have a large painting of a 16" x 20" size of the Plumleaf Azalea, Rhododendron prunifolium, which flowers in July. We decided at the same time to have paintings of two other species of the native azaleas for a matched pair, sized 11" x 16". These should be species which would not be flowering at the same time to relieve the tension and the urgency that would have been created by having all of them arrive at the same period of time and have to be completed at once. After many long telephone discussions, the other two species selected for the matched pair were the Rhododendron canescens, the Piedmont Azalea, and Rhododendron calendulaceum, the Flame Azalea.
Never having shipped azalea flower specimens for this purpose before, we ran into some complex problems as to how they should be handled. It was imperative that they arrive in perfect condition. After consulting on the telephone with Mrs. Dowden, it was decided that we would cut the specimens with buds estimated to open in one day and then work on rapid transportation. The plant specimens were cut late one afternoon, plunged into cool water and stored in a cool room (but not cold storage). The next morning around five o'clock, the plants were packed into a box lined with plastic and interlined with moist newspaper. Insulated with more newspaper, it was placed into a very rigid carton. With the cooperation of Southern Airways assured, the package was rushed to nearby Columbus (Georgia) airport and placed aboard a New York flight. On its arrival at La Guardia Airport, officials there dispatched the parcel by cab to Mrs. Dowden's Greenwich Village studio. In a matter of hours, the fresh azalea flowers from Callaway Gardens graced the artist's drawing table. Mrs. Dowden advised that she also plunged the specimens into cold water in her bath tub immediately, where the specimens remained until the flower portrait was completed during the next several days.
Upon completion of the first portrait, there was some question as to whether the plants had faded enroute. It was impossible to decide whether the colors were accurate by consultation by phone, so I flew to New York with additional fresh specimens to compare with the portrait. It was decided that the Rhododendron canescens portrait of light pink to nearly white flowers, while typical of the early phase, would not balance the stronger colors of Rhododendron calendulaceum in matched pictures. This involved having to redo the entire painting to enrich the color of the Piedmont azalea to shades of pink.
Fortunately, three weeks later, Mrs. Dowden had to make a talk at Frame House Galleries, Louisville, Kentucky. At that time, it was arranged for her to come down to Callaway Gardens on May 12 to make her first visit and to take back with her the specimens of the Flame Azalea, Rhododendron calendulaceum. The Flame Azalea was in colorful bud with very few flowers fully opened. Prior to her departure, we again soaked the plants in water overnight, packed them carefully the next morning and Mrs. Dowden carried them back home with her to her studio in New York. She started the painting the same afternoon and the next day the second portrait was complete.
The problem that did face us later, however, was how to ship, in mid July, the beautiful late flowering specimens of Rhododendron prunifolium. Knowing that we would have problems of heat at this time of the year, plus the fact that Mrs. Dowden and her husband, who was ill, were in summer residence in Connecticut, northwest of Hartford, and the promise of making air connections was not as easy as in New York City added to the complexity.
This time we cut numerous specimens, feeling that we might have to try several different ways. We again cut the plant specimens before they were to be shipped, soaked them in very cool water in room conditions over night. Some specimens were partially opened and others were showing color in the buds. We used this time a special Styrofoam box with a lining of plastic. The plant specimens, removed from the water treatment, were laid lightly in damp paper to prevent shifting. The box was wrapped in aluminum foil laminated wrapping paper and rushed to the Columbus airport to make a New York flight. It was to be picked up by another flight to Hartford, Connecticut and transferred by courier to be arranged by Mrs. Dowden. But the plants did not make the proper connection and missed the connecting flight to Hartford. Mrs. Dowden had arranged with a friend to drive approximately ninety miles to Hartford to receive the box of plant specimens. Upon word that the shipment was late, we expected to repeat the procedure. Fortunately, the box made the next flight four hours later, still in good condition after nearly twelve hours in transit. Thus, Mrs. Dowden began the larger painting of Rhododendron prunifolium the next day. The color intensity portrayed in the painting indicated only slight change, if any, in the color of the specimens that were sent.
Working with Mrs. Dowden was one of the highlights of my year, together with the completion of the conservatory and its adjacent exhibit lobby. I had the privilege, in connection with this, to make another trip to Mrs. Dowden's studio in New York to pick out the other floral portraits that we wished to have on display for the official opening of the new conservatory and display lobby. There were over 30 originals and many more reproductions on display for a period of two months.
Mrs. Dowden commented that she felt no great handicap by being a botanical artist in a great metropolitan area, that friends and nature are kind to her special demands and that she will remain active, if not always content, in the large city.