By Nadia Hall
Christine Watlington has created a beautiful calendar that draws to light the amazing flora and fauna that Bermuda has to offer, in twelve colourful vignettes. After recent hurricanes felled our trees and whipped the flowers from their stems, the island is somehow different from the thick, lush jungle we’re familiar with. The proverbial slate has been wiped clean and upon meeting Christine, she presents me with a branch from the loquat tree, the plump fruits presenting themselves a little earlier than expected. “It was like a false spring. I have a friend who has first loquats and mulberries that are early,” she tells me. “There are so many incredible fruits you can grow and that grow wild in Bermuda,” leafing through pages of her Field Guide, Bermuda’s Botanical Wonderland, she lists them off. “Like the cherry and the loquat and the prickly pear – they’re all edible – the paw paw, the banana, bay grape makes fantastic jelly, lemon and lime, this is soursop that they call the sugar apple here.”
Christine is in awe of those master artists that have passed before her. There’s a spirituality about her that transcends traditional religion. It’s a sort of philosophical appreciation or awareness of there being something more powerful or greater than she. In researching, I noticed a distinct longevity in the lives of these botanical illustrators, many of them thriving well into their 90s, close to 100. When I asked her why she thought this was the case, she said that perhaps it is that love of nature. I imagined that it was probably the meditative, therapeutic nature of the drawing, the focus and the discipline. She believes it’s just the fresh air; nothing that man could create alone. Nothing that man is in control of. “I personally think it brings you so close to creation,” she insists.
First enchanted while illustrating a thesis at the Lindley Library, a library linked with the herbarium at Kew, she’d pour through leather bound volumes from early botanical travellers. “They have all the collections of the first botanicals and dried specimens that were collected by the early plantsmen, the people that were on the ship with Darwin,” she explains. Her voice is so even and temperate, yet she speaks with this wildness, like something out of a period piece, from another time. “Darwin and the Beagle, Captain Cook’s collections, really primitive sketches, they had the Hooker fruits. Joseph Dalton Hooker lived at Kew, worked for the royals and did the most beautiful plates. There are 1000s of volumes in this library and you can hardly breathe because they are so stunning. That’s the world my head lives in; that old ancient place with the first collectors that went off to far-flung places.
“Creating a painting, for example, take a pomegranate so it looks like you can pick it up and eat it. Illustrate the whole life story of a fruit; show the root, the fruit and the flower. That’s how I created the flora Bermuda’s Botanical Wonderland.” Christine presents the sketches for her current project, a study of 20 native and endemic ferns of Bermuda. “ It is a labour of love.”
I’ve come to suspect everything she does is done with the same level of passion and enthusiasm. Her résumé is impressive: her work at Kew and with David Wingate on Nonsuch Island; she’s a fellow of Masterworks. Also a fellow of The Linnaean Society of London, Christine designed the labyrinth at Cambridge Beaches and won a National Trust Award with her husband, Tom Watlington for their Bermuda vernacular style home they created and built 33 years ago. Christine also taught art at the Bermuda High School for girls for the time that their daughter attended the school. She was one of the group to start the Bermuda Craft Market in Dockyard back in the late 1980s. She restored gardens at Sea View in Somerset with Iman and David Bowie and also created gardens on Agar Island with Dr. James Martin, the list goes on. “I came to realise that I had to get out and physically work on the land to create areas of beauty and plant endemics where invasive flora was talking over. When I first came here I didn’t know it was going to be like this because at the time the tourist publicity was very basic. It had a pink bus and a bike on the beach and The [Hamilton] Princess Hotel or something, but when I arrived I couldn’t believe the waterfalls of morning glory and the fact that paradise really existed. Before, I was in the bowels of the herbarium at Kew working with 30 botanists on the ongoing work recording the world’s flora – the most extensive ancient collections of illustrations and dried specimens from times of historical Captain Cook to present day. “The tropical world always fascinated me and when I travelled out to see the real thing it was quite remarkable. To me the tropics are where man survives best. Because of the edibles that are available in the wild and because of the climate and the sun to fit in more crop time. Sunshine just is such a wonderful thing.
“I am now focusing more time into painting. I hope the tiny peep into the little habitats in The Bermuda Birthday Calendar show the beauty of Bermuda and will add to the huge awareness and passion Bermudians have in keeping and preserving wild flora and love of Nature.”
The Calendar is meant to hang on your wall. “Open it each month, showing at a glance birthdays, anniversaries and other important dates to remember of friends and loved ones. You can be in time and organised with a greeting card or call to keep in touch at special times.”