© The Artist

BEDS II 2007

Alison Turnbull (1956 – )


31./3 X 43.5
Accession number


This series of five drawings grows from Alison Turnbull’s ongoing fascination with plant classification, extending her status as an artist collector-researcher. The plan, section and elevation of architectural drawings are the bedrock of Turnbull’s imagery, which explores the shift between ideas and actuality, and back again. In 2002, she had use of a studio at the British School at Rome, and found a source of inspiration in the city’s botanical garden, an 18th-century beauty spot in a dilapidated condition, whose role has shifted from a site of learning to one of leisure. Since visiting botanic gardens across Europe (Padua, Leiden, Oxford, Paris and Uppsala), her observations culminated in 2005 in the artist’s book, The Family Beds [1]. Published by Oxford University, the book marked the revised layout of Oxford’s Botanic Garden, which took the lead in having its plant beds rearranged according to new genetic research. Similarly, the Beds drawings hinge on the work of Dr Mark Chase of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, leader of the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group, which processes molecular data, resulting in a radical redesign of the plant world’s family tree.

This crop of drawings touches on the complexities of rearranging information, but employs the most minimal and low-tech of means. In the background is the Natural Historian’s archaic methodology of collecting, naming, cataloguing and ordering, but in taking into account the new taxonomic project of genetic classification, Turnbull’s approach is not to impose a formal order; instead she deduces something unusual from the tangle of conflicting methodologies. Although Turnbull’s drawings often act as blueprints for paintings, in this series, the medium is integral. Beds is executed in charcoal, one of the most basic of artists’ materials (and one which also has a distinct horticultural use: it can be added to otherwise unproductive soil to render it highly fertile). It allows for a subtle monochrome spectrum: in Beds III the symmetry is disrupted, gently, by segments changing from the palest ash to rich grey. In Beds IV, the fullest drawing, the geometric sections (squares, crosses, three ‘h’s) are studded with equidistant spots, but the variations in shading add a certain obscurity.

Probing the relationship between the history of science and the implications of technological advances, Turnbull’s plan layout of the plant beds also evokes imagery of urban planning in Britain’s postwar era. Her seemingly analytical compositions hint at the utopian diagrams that emerged in the aftermath - from the mess and destruction - of the blitz. Information is translated into an austere, pared-down language, and yet these drawings do not purport to offer answers: imagination is required to fill in the gaps.

[1] Turnbull, Alison, The Family Beds (Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, Oxford 2005)K