It is an astonishing fact that if you had been born in Europe during the 16th century, the size of your known world would have doubled. Just imagine: within your lifetime you would have had twice your horizons to explore, to exploit, to explain. The great voyages of discovery, driven by maritime prowess and the relentless pursuit of profit, were also monuments to fearless eccentricity, botanical and geological curiosity, and the indomitable amateur spirit.
No institution embodies these qualities more than a botanical garden, and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew is one of the most beautiful and historic gardens in the country. It's not the oldest - that honour goes to Oxford - but just 10 miles from the centre of London lies one of the finest collections of living plant material and preserved plant specimens in the world. This year Kew celebrates its 250th anniversary. Jonathan Meade describes it as '300 acres of sylvan enchantment...a classroom under the sky.' Nobody, he writes, could stroll though it 'without a sense of wonder,without gratitude...and without learning something'.
As a botanical painter I share these feelings, marvelling at the sheer complexity and diversity of life forms on this planet; indebted to the countless men (and women) who risked - and often lost - their lives to bring back and show us the interesting, beautiful and useful things they'd found; privileged to add another tiny grain to the sum of knowledge inside my head.
Recently awarded the status of a World Heritage site, the Royal Botanic Gardens' scientists and botanists have collaborated in developing a "DNA bar code" which will help to identify plants around the world. But could this mean the end of botanical painting?
Happily we are still in demand. Kew has always used botanical illustration in its scientific work, as the botanical artist is able to show detailed characteristics of plants far more clearly than photographic records. Sadly, with one in five of Britain's native flora at risk of extinction, we are busier than ever.
In 500BC Theophrastus, a pupil of Aristotle, made a list of 500 plants. Today we know of over 422,000, and it's estimated that perhaps 100,000 species of flowering plants are yet to be discovered. Many areas of the world, particularly the moist dense forests of Southeast Asia and New Guinea, are almost certainly home to large numbers of new species that still have to be documented and illustrated.
Scientists and environmentalists tell us that unless we intervene effectively and swiftly, up to two-thirds of all species of plants, animals, fungi and microorganisms could vanish in the next few years. Every day, four more plant species face the threat of extinction. The explosion of treasures sent back from newly-discovered lands galvanized the sixteenth-century botanical illustrators into recording things they'd never seen before. Five centuries later, it is our urgent and melancholy duty to record things we may never see again.
At a time of unprecedented environmental change, we all need to get involved in changing our attitudes and behaviours. Within our lifetime it is highly likely - some would say certain - that unless we do, over half the number of known life forms on earth will disappear forever. Those that remain will be rare and precious. Prepare for long queues at Kew?