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As a girl, Shirley Sherwood had set her heart on becoming a botanical artist, yet when, aged 21, she was offered what she once would have thought of as her dream job – drawing plants and dissecting flowers and fruit – at Oxford University, she turned it down.
“I wanted to be out in the world, not at the back of a herbarium,” she says. And out in the world the redoubtable Shirley has been ever since, amassing any number of extraordinary accomplishments along the way.
In an era when female scientists were a rarity, she was the lone female botanist in her year at Oxford in 1951 and became the only woman on a Nobel-prize-winning pharmaceutical team.
Shirley’s CV does not stop there: she’s written several books on botany, and, alongside her second husband James, relaunched the iconic Orient Express in the early Eighties. Yet there is one achievement she holds dear above all others and which links her to the passion she ﬁrst nurtured in childhood.
Today, Shirley is one of the foremost collectors of botanical art, and pieces from her 1,064 strong collection – gathered from 36 countries – are seen every week by thousands in the gallery that bears her name in the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew.
It’s a rather wonderful legacy, as Shirley, who was awarded the OBE for services to botanical art in 2012, agrees when we meet at her elegant west London home, which is decorated with some of her best-loved artworks. “I could never pick just one,” she says, when asked if she has a favourite.
The gallery at Kew brought her life full circle. As a teenager, she presented botanists there with 50 plant specimens she had collected on a trip to Pakistan, little knowing that decades later she would have her own dedicated space at Kew.
A passion for plants has proved to be the thread weaving through Shirley’s long life. She was raised in Hertfordshire by nature-loving parents and her mother painted flowers for a living. Determined to study botany, she arrived at the then all-female St Anne’s College in Oxford. Unable to ﬁnd work as a botanist while studying, she got a job researching antibiotics at the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology, where she met her ﬁrst husband Michael Cross, a dashing scientist several years her senior. The couple married in 1957 and had two sons, Charles and Simon.
In 1964, tragedy struck when Michael was killed in a plane crash on the way to a conference, leaving Shirley widowed with two very young children at the age of just 29. “It was a very ghastly time,” she says simply. “But you get through these periods.”
Now the breadwinner, Shirley abandoned her academic studies to work at a pharmaceutical company where she helped to develop a pioneering drug used to treat stomach ulcers. Her team leader, James Black, went on to receive the Nobel prize for the work. “I hit lucky with the job,” she says modestly.
By then, Shirley had met her second husband, the late American businessman James Sherwood. She often accompanied him on his professional travels as he acquired some of the world’s most recognisable hotels, including the Cipriani in Venice. “It was rather wonderful,” she recalls. “We had a lot of adventures along the way.”
James also expanded into high-end travel and, with Shirley’s help, tracked down and restored vintage carriages of the Orient Express before relaunching the luxurious train service, which made its maiden journey from London to Venice in May 1982.
Meanwhile, Shirley took on the editorship of the Orient Express magazine, where her passion for botanical art was revived when she was introduced to Pandora Sellars, who is now widely acknowledged as one of the most influential artists in the genre. “I saw how beautiful her work was and, while I had never stopped being interested, I was fascinated all over again.”
She purchased one of Sellars’ paintings, which proved to be the start of a global collection credited with breaking new ground and launching the careers of artists all over the world. With her boys now grown up, Shirley often travelled with her husband for eight months of the year, searching out the best botanical art. From far flung regions of Japan to Bangkok and Manila, everywhere was fertile ground for discovering new talent.
“I’ve had a long life and my spirit of adventure has certainly not left me yet.”
By 1996, Shirley’s collection was extensive enough to merit its own exhibition at Kew, the ﬁrst of many both there and internationally. Twelve years later, the Sherwood family collaborated with Kew to open a gallery in Shirley’s name, the ﬁrst display space to be dedicated to the genre.
It has held more than 50 exhibitions since – Shirley presiding beady-eyed over each one – featuring pieces from her own collection alongside works from Kew’s archive.
“I think it’s interesting to try to stir things up a bit,” she says. “I sometimes take a very contemporary Hockney-style piece and put it against a painting of cherry blossom by a Japanese artist.”
Certainly Shirley has lost none of her enthusiasm. While she dearly misses her husband, who died in 2020 at the age of 86, she remains determinedly independent and travels as often as she can, although at home she has a live-in housekeeper.
Given her extraordinary life, it’s also no surprise that Shirley is currently writing a memoir, which is due out this autumn. “It’s funny doing this book as it brought back lots of things that I’d forgotten,” she says. “I’ve had a long life and my spirit of adventure has certainly not left me yet.”
For more on Shirley’s art collection at Kew, see shirleysherwood.com
Written by Kathryn Knight