Loafing through Chinese history

The passion of the Britons who discovered the flora of China is explored in a fascinating exhibition at Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden. Thom Dibdin saw it and will never feel the same about rhododendrons again.

Other people's holiday filrrrs deserxe a body-swerve at the best of times and are hardly the stuff of a fascinating exhibition. Especially when they are otrt of focus. grainy and made by an egocentric you've never heard of. let alone know personally.

Except the films forming the pitrnaclc of the exhibition at the Royal Botanic Garden in [Edinburgh were shot irr Tibet. by an eccentric explorer who was the official British resident in Lhasa in the mid forties. just before Tibet was taken over by the Chinese and its culture lost forever.

George Sherri if was unlikely to have known when



Nelumbo Nucllera: Waterllly In full pale pink (centre butter yellow)

he made the films that there would be noone to follow in his footsteps. True to the ptrnctilious nature of the seven botanists highlighted in the Flora Of China exhibition. he simply documented everything that went on around him. As a close friend ofthe Dalai Laura. he had access to religious ceremonies and filmed thcrtr. along with his journeys through the Tibetan countryside.

The films were shot in colour using a camera without depth of field or focus. giving them a surreal quality and making anything further than a few feet away from the lens look like a moving oil painting. Yet this only enhances the mystery and magic of the Tibetan landscape with its beautiful flora that captivated a generation of botanists in the early 20th century.

This being a botanical exhibition. it is not confined to Sherriff‘s 30 minutes of film. Some of the thousands of photographs taken by botanists in China are displayed. Although taken for reference. not artistic reasons. they have a singular beauty. In one. a lone figure sits astride a horse. reduced to the size of an insect in comparison to the vastness of the mountains behind him. Besides conveying something of the sheer scale of the barriers to the expeditions. it speaks of otrr insignificance on the grand scale of things.

Not that the likes of Sherriff appear to have been daunted by the Tibetan environment. They marched off into the wilderness in search of their beloved plants and flowers. dragging their culture with them. Before taking rip his official post in l946. Sherriff and his friend Frank l.udlow made seven expeditions together ~- expeditions where a lot of best lslay trralt was served last thing at night before the Europeans retired to their tents to read Kipling and write their diaries.

Sherriff and l.udlow spent years together. yet never becatne familiar enough to address each other by their first names. Every photograph of them shows them in shirt and tie. They were fans of Gilbert and Sullivan. making up doggcral verse in the style of Gilbert.

’et they found thousands of plants unknown in the

Images of Tibetan culture by George Forrest In the 20's

west. Rhododendrons. gcntians, orchids and irises were Collected and sent back to Britain for classification and propagation. Included in the exhibition area few cards from the Royal Botanic Gardens own herbaritrm: an extensive catalogue of pressed plants kept for reference. These too have their own simple beauty. The gaudy colours may have faded since the plants were first gathered in the field. but it is fascinating to read. in the collectors own hand. the description of the location is here the plant w as fotrnd.

Wandering through the Botanic (i.rrdctt on .r fine spring day. the deep reds and startling w bites of the rhododendrons have becortre so accepted in this country that they hardly look otrt of place Yet a century ago they were not known in Britain The Flora ()fC‘hina helps you to grasp the effort and .leicnninuriorr of the people who first brought them back.

The exhibition only touches the tip of the (ll'L‘lllH' material that the Botanic Garden has in its vaults. The descriptions of the explorers are fascinating. if brief. The casual visitor is unable to leaf through the ' diaries kept at the time. unable to read of the i hardships involved. ofjourneys by donkey into some of the most remote regions of the world. of the elation at discovering a new flower growing not in a single clump in a cottage garden. but spread out on the floor of a Tibetan valley at sunset.

As one Frank Kingdottr-War'd wrote itr his diary of one particularly beautiful find: ‘I can recall seyeral flowers which at first sight have knocked the breath out of me. btrt only two or three which have taken me by storm as did this one. The sudden vision is like a physical blow. a blow in the pit of the stomach; one can only gasp and stare.

‘In the face of such unsurpassed loveliness one is afraid to move. as with bated breath one rnrrtters the single word ‘God!' -- a prayer rather than an exclamation. And when at last with fluttering heart one does venture to step forward. it is on tiptoe. and hat in hand. to wonder and to worship.‘

Flora Of China is a! the Royal Botanic (ion/m. Edinburgh until 23 Jul.

54 The List 21 Apr-4 May I995