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So there I was, in March, drifting down the Amazon with 30 or so keen beginners expecting to achieve a finished piece of botanical artwork.

On this particular trip on Minerva, almost all our time was spent on shore. There were just some afternoons on board and four experts whose spell-binding lectures no one wanted to miss. So the workshop sessions I was allotted were seven in all - each of 40 minutes long plus a final session to be an exhibition for the other passengers to see! The room was needed for other purposes and so everything had to be cleared away promptly by my ever-helpful Filipino steward, Roland.

In my class was a well-known actor along with his wife and friends and the former Lord Mayor of Birmingham. I had taught him on a previous occasion and he was always enthusiastic and helpful - just what I needed to help spur the others along.

One of the guest speakers was Sir Ghillean Prance, famous for his work in Brazil, discoverer of over 3000 Amazonian plant and insect species and one-time director of Kew. He had brought with him a video about the life of Margaret Mee which gave my students a sense of history and being in the right place for botanical painting.

We flew to Manaus and boarded Minerva there. The city was only weeks away from staging the World Cup. We had a wonderful guided tour of the famous opera house and then a city tour including the far-from-finished World Cup stadium. I think their preoccupation with getting everything ready for the football was probably the reason the flowers sent on board were so abysmal. There was a branch of supremely boring leaves which actually looked and felt artificial. There were couple of large ugly buds in the colour a friend of mine calls "cheap underwear pink". These were past their best, brown at the edges. And there were some heliconias - just the top bit, the rest chopped off.

So I went around the ship pilfering as many blooms as I dare from the potted orchids on all the window sills (with permission from the cruise manager). After we left the Amazon we had to bypass Devil's Island, French Guyana because a rocket had been launched there and they didn't know where the bits would fall. So the next stop was Guyana where I discovered there was a fruit and veg street market outside the dock gates and I trawled up and down (we could not go elsewhere without a police escort) until I found some beautiful little peppers. I asked for a mixed bag of yellow, red, orange and green. I also bought some small round chillies (very hot!) and some dried hibiscus flowers which Ghillean told me they boil up to make a drug. All this for a couple of dollars.

I also managed to sneak dead leaves and a few small flowers into my bag in a botanical garden we visited, my husband saying cheerfully that Brazilian gaols probably aren't all that bad.

I borrowed a tray from the ship's kitchen and offered my finds to the students who seemed happy enough. I forgot to tell them that Ruskin said, "If you can paint a leaf, you can paint the world". Must remember another time.

The American passengers had not received the short list of what to bring. The ship's shop - tiny and more aimed at selling sunglasses, perfume and t-shirts - had some surprisingly good paper, some awful brushes, HB pencils and about 20 tubes of Winsor and Newton watercolour. Unfortunately these were all the same shade of dark brown. I discovered some little Cotman boxes in a cupboard and I lent some of my equipment. It is not possible to take sufficient for 30 plus people when travelling by air. The other passengers were generous and everyone managed somehow. The tables they shared to work on were tiny but they managed with these too. On such a small cruise ship (280 passengers) endless space and facilities are not to be expected.

The final 40 minute session was our "exhibition". It didn't look too dreadful, though. Roland arranged tables in a "U" shape and we laid out everything my class had managed to produce. It was actually rather impressive!

My actor had painted a huge snail shell my husband had picked up on our travels - not strictly botanical but it was rather good. I would love to have painted the baby armadillo, the young tapir, the young sloth and the enormous grasshopper we saw but with such a lot to fit in there was so little time, even for quick sketches.

Many of my students said they had learned a lot. The other passengers were full of admiration. They were probably being kind but it is amazing what can be achieved in 40 minutes if you really go for it, even with complete beginners. No doubt my students were all very cheerful because they were anticipating the next stop on the journey, the erudite speakers' talks and the four wonderful opera singers who entertained us after our five course dinners.


Yvonne Glenister Hammond 2014-05-12


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