Mally Francis, botanical artist, Eden Project botanical art tutor, Fellow of the Linnean Society, Fellow of the Chelsea Physic Garden Florilegium Society and founder chairman of the Eden Project Florilegium Society, died on Saturday 13 April 2019, exactly a week before her 73rd birthday. Her death followed a short illness.
Mally was born and educated in Yorkshire and in 1967 qualified as a speech and language therapist in Edinburgh. In 1988 she started to learn about and remained fascinated by botanical art. She was taught in Leicester by Anne-Marie Evans MBE FLS, whose botanical art principles she followed throughout her own career.
Mally was a popular and accomplished tutor who took great pleasure in introducing others to her love of drawing and painting plants. Her work has been shown and collected nationally and internationally.
“Once you start, botanical illustration gets under your skin,” she said. “The more you do, the more you see. What starts as a mild interest develops into complete absorption. Walks in the country are the same as you become aware of the extraordinary and beautiful complexity of plants.”
In 1996 she and her husband moved from Leicester to Cornwall, to the Heligan Estate where they renovated the Wagon House and rebuilt the derelict sawpit, creating the Sawpit Studio. This became their creative and social hub and a photographic studio for Charles and a flourishing botanical art studio for Mally.
They ran a B&B from the Wagon House, with many guests staying to paint or explore Heligan and Cornwall. In this way, they met and formed friendships with people from all over the world. Mally had a particular ability to connect with people and connect them with each other, with unforgettable results.
From 2000 she held regular botanical art courses in her home and studio, in the centre of the Lost Gardens of Heligan. In that year she founded the Eden Project Florilegium Society, basing this on the Chelsea Physic Garden Florilegium Society, of which she was a Fellow.
She mainly taught watercolour painting on paper but also taught graphite and colour pencil work and the very different techniques of watercolour painting on vellum.
In 2012 Mally was elected as a Fellow of the Linnaean Society, in recognition of work for the Eden Project Florilegium Society.
Sir Tim Smit KBE, founder of the Eden Project and driving force behind the restoration of the Lost Gardens of Heligan asked her to provide the botanical illustrations for Heligan Wild, a Year of Nature in the Lost Gardens. These paintings became the subject of a solo exhibition at the Tradescant Garden Museum in London. Later she was asked to illustrate Heligan Days, and Heligan Wild for the Heligan shop.
Away from her studio she taught botanical art widely, at venues including the Eden Project, the Bath Society of Botanical Artists, the South West Botanical Art Society, and the Ventnor Botanical Artists Group, The Truro Arts Company, Boconnoc House and Trengwainton Gardens in Cornwall.
Two thirds of the artists whose work was accepted into the Eden archives were her students. Some of the 90 paintings can be seen in the Eden Project Florilegium Society book A Coming of Age and there are many more in the archive. Two of her former students have gone on to win a number of Gold Medals at RHS botanical art shows.
Mally organised a number of exhibitions in Cornwall for her art groups, the most recent commemorated the Heligan gardeners who died in the First World War. This showed the flowers, vegetables and animal life with which they would have been familiar.
In January 2018, the newly formed Association of British Botanical Artists (ABBA) chose her painting of Babington’s Leek Allium ampeloprasum var.babingtonii as the publicity image for its exhibition “In Ruskin’s Footsteps – Linking people to plants through botanical art” at Lancaster University’s Peter Scott Gallery. The original was also shown at the RHS Show in London that summer, where it was purchased by Dr Shirley Sherwood OBE for her collection.
That unique exhibition in Lancaster was the UK contribution to the Worldwide Botanical Art Day, on 18 May 2018. Botanical art groups in 25 countries worldwide opened simultaneous exhibitions, comprising nearly 1,000 pictures of plants. In each case, the pictures showed plants indigenous to the host countries.
In a world first, each venue also showed a composite video display that included all the pictures shown around the world. Mally was honoured and excited to be part of ABBA and was delighted to learn that her picture is to be included in Shirley Sherwood’s next exhibition and book. Characteristically, she had hoped to take an active role in ABBA when she recovered.
Mally Francis leaves her husband Charles, two daughters and four grandsons, and a whole community of botanical artists in Cornwall who will be lost without her.
Her funeral will be at 14:00 on Friday 3 May, at All Saints church, St Ewe, Cornwall.