Saturday, 24 January 2015

Flower Power : The Talented Mr. Ripley

Back in August, in a previous “Flower Power” article, I wrote about Rupert Barneby. In that article I mentioned his life partner, a fellow botanist called Dwight Ripley. From very early on in their lives they became connected through a mutual love of botany that blossomed into a real love for each other that lasted almost 50 years.

Even though they can be regarded as a couple they had different personalities and interests. But it would be difficult to write an article about one without including the other. I’ll come to Dwight’s particularly botanical talents in a moment, but first I’ll talk about one of his other talents – art.

Dwight’s style of drawing has been described as surrealist. He had studied art at Harrow, the school where he and Rupert met. It wasn’t until the 1930s that Dwight appears to have begun to paint with the intention of exhibiting. His friend Jean Connolly had lots of connections in the New York art scene which was quite vibrant at the time. This appealed to Dwight, and was probably an important factor in his and Rupert’s decision to move to New York in 1943 (the major reason was to study the plants of the American deserts).

Dwight drew Rupert’s portrait while at Harrow, and many years later drew a similar one with Rupert wearing a top hat that turned into a flower pot. This portrait was used on the cover jacket of Douglas Crase’s 2004 joint biography of the couple (pictured below).
Dwight’s first exhibition was in 1946 at a New York gallery owned by another friend Peggy Guggenheim. Indeed, the two had a brief and very open affair. Dwight and Rupert’s relationship was never officially monogamous.

The prospect of future exhibitions there were scotched when Peggy closed the gallery in 1947 and moved to France. Dwight then considered opening his own gallery, or at least financing one, and he met art critic Clement Greenberg. Between them they created the Tibor de Nagy Gallery (65 years ago today). Tibor de Nagy was the co-director of the gallery and sponsor of its first exhibition. Although Dwight had always intended to be a silent backer for the gallery many in the art world were aware of where the money had come from. Dwight was to host his own exhibitions there right up to 1962.

Rupert Barneby was himself an accomplished artist, though his art was mainly scientific – making accurate drawings of the plant specimens he and Dwight found. Dwight’s art was born out of imagination and personal interpretation rather than a pursuit of accuracy.

Another of Dwight’s talents was poetry. He wasn’t a great poet, but he used another of his talents, languages, to write poetry in a variety of languages which ranged from Polish to Catelan. Dwight spoke 15 languages and could read 30 more. He and Rupert both studied modern languages when they were at Oxford University, and Dwight had shown a somewhat precocious talent as a child for Latin.

Which brings me back to Dwight’s “Flower Power”. It was his knowledge of botanical Latin that was part of the attraction between him and Rupert at Harrow. Dwight had designed his own gardens from the age of 8, and he made lists of the plants he wanted to grow, all in their Latin names. So by the time he met Rupert he was as knowledgeable on botanical Latin as any boy his age today might be on their favourite boyband. This knowledge appealed to Rupert for another reason. Rupert was beginning to take an interest in the meanings, use and application of scientific names, or taxonomy (the oldest profession in the Bible, as Adam was given the task of naming the animals and birds).

After university, together, or sometimes Rupert alone, they made trips into the American deserts looking for new plants. Their first success came in 1940 when they discovered the plant now called Aliciella ripleyi. This was the first of six plant species to which Rupert assigned Dwight’s surname. The full list is:
Aliciella ripleyi,
Astrogalus ripleyi,
Cymopterus ripleyi,
Eriogonum ripleyi,
Omphalodes ripleyana, and
Senna ripleyi.
(Rupert’s name was also used by other botanists to name various other plant species.

Dwight Ripley’s legacy and talents affected the world of botany and art long after his death in 1973. Rupert survived him, and they jointly received an award from the American Rock Garden Society for their contribution to the successful cultivation of rock plants. Rupert authorised the publication of Dwight’s journals, and Douglas Crase, the author of their joint biography, has curated exhibitions of Dwight’s drawings.

No comments:

Post a Comment