Fascinating collection of Ray Cowell's illustrations comes to Kew

By: Lynn Parker - 20/12/2011

Read about a new acquisition of illustrations by artist Ray Cowell, who painted fungi in astonishing detail -  even including the teeth marks of hungry rodents!

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A passion for painting

The Illustrations Collection has recently acquired a large group of watercolours of mycological (fungi) specimens by Ray Cowell.

Ray was born in Hampstead and educated in Cambridge, and after leaving school worked in The Veterinary Physiology Laboratory of the University of Cambridge. In 1957 she married Eric Cowell, a botanist, and they began a life together that was periodically nomadic. During their travels Ray became passionate about painting the people and landscapes around her. A self-taught artist who always worked from life, she painted her first fungi in 1973 whilst on holiday in Wiltshire’s Savernake Forest, and using a technique based on ‘gouache’, her passion for botanical illustration was galvanized. 

Ray Cowell at work on one of her illustrations

Ray Cowell at work on one of her illustrations

Ray's techniques

Ray used acid-free, grey paper, and would begin by sketching the outline of the fungus, filling it in with Chinese White, which would serve to heighten the colour. Colours were always mixed using primaries that she later added using fine brushes. This facilitated her minutely observed, meticulous, technique. She painted her fungi actual size using fresh specimens, and liked to incorporate the blemishes or damage that she found on the material, such as teeth marks from rodents, because she believed that this might hold some significance. 

Amanita echinocephala by Ray Cowell

Amanita echinocephala, gouache on paper. This specimen was painted on the site of a beech plantation in Cambridgeshire, October 1987.

Amanita echinocephala (syn. Amanita solitaria) grows on dry chalky soils, alongside birch and sometimes in beech woods. With an unpleasant smell and taste, this fungus emerges at the beginning of autumn.

Fame around the world

Ray worked in the UK, Holland, Romania, The United States, and in Australia where she was commissioned to paint for Flora Australiensis. She went on to contribute text and illustrations to publications such as The New Scientist, Natura, and Ca M’Interesse. Exhibiting around the world, her work may be found in collections as far afield as Europe, North America and Australia. But Ray wanted to share her skills and enthusiasm with others, and established several fungal illustration courses including one at Royal Holloway College. She was a mentor to others, including Kate Syme - an Australian who secured a scholarship to study with Ray, and is now a celebrated painter of Australian fungi. 

Amanita muscaria by Ray Cowell

Amanita muscaria, gouache on paper, painted on the Cambridgshire-Suffolk border, September 1982.

If you were asked to think of a toadstool, it would invariably be an image of Amanita muscaria, or fly agaric. This red, white spotted fungus, archetypal of fairy stories, and historically associated with ‘faery folk’, is poisonous and an emetic, as well as a powerful hallucinogen.

From painting to poetry

Sadly, in later life, Ray Cowell suffered from ME and Lupus, becoming severely disabled, and as her health worsened, she was unable to produce the detail she required for her paintings, and she turned her creative ability to writing poetry. She died on 24 October 2010.

Boletus eduli by Ray Cowell

Boletus edulis, gouache on paper, painted in an area between Harling Drove, Norfolk and Wicken, Cambridgshire, November 1978.

Boletus edulis grows widely across the Northern Hemisphere in a mutualistic association with coniferous and broadleaved species. The fungus envelops the roots of the trees, exchanging otherwise hard-to-access nutrients from the soil for sugar produced by the plants through photosynthesis. Commonly known in English-speaking countries as the cep, penny bun, porcini, or sometimes King Bolete, this edible mushroom's flavour is concentrated after drying, making it a versatile, highly prized gourmet ingredient used extensively in many cuisines.

You can find out more about the cep mushroom in Dentinger, B.T. et al. (2010) Molecular phylogenetics of porcini mushrooms (Boletus section Boletus). Mol. Phylogenet. Evol. 57(3): 1276-1292.


Kew’s Illustrations Collection continues to grow with purchases made through its modest acquisitions budget and through bequests and the sponsorship of artworks. If you have any queries about the Illustrations Collection please contact the team at illus@kew.org.

- Lynn -


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