Christmas Bells.

Christmas Bells by Joseph Paxton.

MY FIRST encounter with Pierre-Joseph Redoute, the 18th-century Belgian painter and botanist, was two rose prints that took pride of place on my mother's wall.

An avid rosarian, she would gaze at them with love, sigh and say: ''My Redoute roses. Aren't they marvellous?'' As a young girl, I didn't share her sentiments, but as an adult I appreciate her admiration for the perfect lines, exquisite detail and subtle colourings in his passionate portrayals of the most loved flower in the world.

Botanic art is like that, so realistic - light and shade, perfect flowers, stigmas, stamens, leaves and seed receptacles - you feel you could pick them off the painting and display them in a vase.

Sturts desert pea.

Sturt's Desert Pea published by Ambroise Verschaffelt, part of Capturing Flora at Ballarat Art Gallery.

While such paintings are things of beauty, their main aim is to produce an accurate depiction of a plant or flower for scientific purposes, traditionally known as ''verisimilitude'' (a likeness or resemblance of the truth).

Devotees of this fine art form will be captivated by Capturing Flora: 300 Years of Australian Botanical Art at the Art Gallery of Ballarat, with more than 350 images on display. The exhibition, featuring works from 1699 to today, is presented in themes. A highlight is the botanic drawings that emanated from the era of exploration and introduced Australia's flora to the world. This theme includes images of plants collected by English explorers James Cook and Matthew Flinders, as well as William Dampier.

Frenchmen Francois Peron and Jules Dumont d'Urville collected specimens during their expeditions, which included the works of luminaries such as Sir Joseph Banks and Jacques Labillardiere.

Dig it.

The second theme of the exhibition documents the increasing popularity of Australian plants in Australian as well as European gardens, with a section devoted to Baron Frederick von Mueller, the first director of Melbourne's Royal Botanic Gardens. An avid plant collector, von Mueller rode throughout Victoria on horseback gathering seeds to propagate for gardens.

Gallery director and exhibition curator Gordon Morrison says an important facet of Capturing Flora is to display contributions by women to scientific and botanic art. ''It starts with a group of English artists who recorded Australian flowers, then we move to the 19th century Fanny Anne Charsley, a genteel lady who wandered around the outskirts of Adelaide and Melbourne drawing and painting wildflowers,'' Morrison says.

At the end of the 19th century, Ellis Rowan - the first of the Australian botanic superstars, according to Morrison - came on the scene, but despite winning awards for her works, she was dismissed by some as a flower painter rather than a recorder of botanic merit.

Von Mueller used many of her paintings to classify unidentified Australian native plants.

There are also works by Margaret Flockton, who was so highly regarded she was appointed, at the age of 40, as the chief illustrator for the Sydney Botanic Gardens, where she stayed for 27 years.

Morrison says the exhibition ''makes the illusion'' of the decline in botanical art from World War I to the 1950s, then the resurgence with illustrators such as Margaret Stones, who in 1957 was commissioned to prepare a set of floral designs for postage stamps.

A wall is devoted to Celia Rosser, whose illustrations of banksias are unsurpassed. Other botanic artists featured include Anita Barley, Jenny Phillips, Mali Moir, Dianne Emery and John Pastoriza Pinol.

The exhibition also includes botanical art workshops and a range of public programs. It runs until December 9. The gallery is at 40 Lydiard Street, North Ballarat.

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