Intensely private, and possessing an obsessive work ethic and passion for the natural world, Raymond Booth earned a reputation as one of the greatest botanical painters and illustrators, despite rarely leaving his Yorkshire home. Eschewing the more fashionable modernist principles of the early mid-twentieth century, he instead produced beautiful, intense compositions in oil of British flora and fauna, that rival the very finest Victorian followers of the genre. Raymond Booth was born in Wetherby, West Yorkshire, on 8 August 1929, to John Booth, a member of the local police force, and his wife Margaret Edna. When Raymond was still a young child, the family moved from their first home in the crowded streets of central Leeds, to Fearnville Place, in the leafy suburb of Roundhay. His father was a keen rambler and impressed upon Booth from an early age a respect and understanding for the British countryside. Just a short walk from his childhood home was Roundhay Park, the second largest urban park in Europe, comprised of over 700 acres of parkland, lakes and woodland.
It is likely that growing up so close to such an environment had a profound influence on him, helping to develop what would become a lifelong obsession with natural world. Booth’s early passion for nature was surely heightened by the number of summer holidays he spent on an estate near Winterslow, Wiltshire, where an uncle worked as a gamekeeper.
In 1946, at the age of 17, Booth won a scholarship to study at Leeds College of Art. However, his studies were put on hold during two years of National Service, which he spent largely with the RAF in Egypt, guarding the Suez Canal. He returned to Leeds College in 1949, graduating in 1953. While at Leeds College, he had frustrated his teachers and fellow students by insisting on working in a more traditional, precise style, and rejecting the more Modernist principles that were being promoted. As a result, his teachers convinced him that he was unlikely to earn a living as an artist, and encouraged him instead to study for a teaching diploma. Shortly after graduation however, he was diagnosed as suffering from tuberculosis, a consequence of his time in Egypt, and was admitted to a sanatorium, where he would stay for the next six months. Years later, Booth would joke ‘I am one of the few people who can say, “Thank God for TB”’ (The Times obituary, 9 September 2015), as his months of recuperation gave him countless hours to develop his skills as a botanical artist. This enforced focus on his work gave him the confidence to submit a number of his drawings to a botanical art exhibition in London organised by the Royal Horticultural Society. These works attracted the attention of a number of prominent horticulturalists, including Dr Harold Fletcher, the director of the RHS’s gardens at Wisley, Sir George Taylor, director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, and the second Lord Fairhaven, all of whom would become patrons of Booth. His drawings at the Royal Horticultural Society also earned him a commission to illustrate a large two-volume work devoted to camellias, entitled The Camellia (1956), by Beryl Leslie Urquhart. When the actor Ernest Thesiger viewed the works at the RHS, he recommended them to the director of Walker’s Galleries on New Bond Street. As a result, Booth would exhibit there until its closure in 1961.
Following the closure of Walker’s Galleries, Booth began exhibiting, from 1962, at the Fine Art Society. He held is first solo show there in 1975, and would go on to have a further seven dedicated exhibitions, including a large, 50-year retrospective in 2011. Though he lent several owl studies to an exhibition on birds of prey at Leeds City Museum during the early 1970s, he remained virtually unknown in his native Yorkshire until a retrospective exhibition of his work toured his home county, going on display at Huddersfield Art Gallery, Crescent Art Gallery, Scarborough, and Cooper Gallery, Barnsley. In 1992, he completed one of his most ambitious undertakings, a collection of 85 drawings of Japanese flora for Don Elick’s Japonica Magnifica. This impressive publication was borne out of 12 years of correspondence between Booth and Elick, an American plant collector who had lived in Japan for over 40 years. During this time, Elick would send rare and exotic Japanese plants to Booth, who would grow them in his garden. His drawings for Japonica Magnifica were exhibited at the Fine Art Society and Lotherton Hall, Leeds, in 1992, and the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh (1994), before spending two years touring the USA, going on display at the Paine Webber Gallery (New York) The Morris Museum (Morristown, New Jersey), the Elveheim Museum of Art (Madison, Wisconsin), the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), Bruce Museum (Greenwich, Connecticut) and Chicago Botanic Garden.
Booth was an intensely private, almost reclusive artist who spent his career obsessively dedicated to his craft, rarely venturing from his home in Alwoodley, a suburb of Leeds. His exquisitely detailed and scientifically accurate oils were produced in a home studio from plant specimens that he personally cultivated in his garden and greenhouses, or from animal specimens that had been sent to him, such as foxes, badgers and birds, which he kept in a special refrigerator. Indeed, his first contact with Leeds City Museum was through the natural science collections, where the curators would lend him owls and rabbits for his studies. Despite an association of over fifty years, he visited the Fine Art Society only once. He did not personally appear at an opening of any of his shows until the major retrospective of his work held at Leeds Art Gallery in 2002.
Raymond Booth met his wife, Jean (née Wilson), the widow of the artist Ronald Pawson, at Gadsby’s artists’ materials shop, where she worked, close to his home. They were friends for many years before marrying in 1991. They lived together at 22 Far Moss, Alwoodley, Leeds, until Booth died from cancer on 26 June 2015. They had no children. The following year, a major memorial exhibition was held at the Fine Art Society.
His work is held in numerous public collections, including the Shirley Sherwood Gallery at Kew; The Fitzwilliam Museum (Cambridge) and Leeds Art Gallery; The Ulster Museum (Belfast) and the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation (Pittsburgh, PA)
Further Reading: Peyton Skipwith, An Artist’s Garden, New York: Callaway, 2000