“Plant imperialism”, Lydia Wevers

Lady Painters: the flower painters of early New Zealand
Bee Dawson
Penguin, $69.95,
ISBN 0 670 88651 3

In 1981 the Royal Commonwealth Society disposed of 40 “exquisite” watercolours, found bound into a volume of New Zealand Company papers entitled Native Plants of New Zealand. The paintings were unsigned, but when photographs of them arrived at the Turnbull Library, Moira Long, the Assistant Curator of Drawings and Prints, recognised them as originals of four of the botanical lithographs ascribed to “Miss King” in E J Wakefield’s Illustrations to Adventure in New Zealand. The Turnbull bought the paintings, and Moira Long was able to establish a biography of Martha King, the first resident botanical artist, who arrived in Wanganui in 1842.

Martha King is the first of Bee Dawson’s lady painters, women whose artistic talent and natural observation provided both an extensive record of New Zealand plants and belonged to the robust tradition of woman botanical artists and explorers – King herself, Emily Harris, Fanny Osborne, Sarah Featon, Georgina Hetley, Isabel Hodgkins, Margaret Stoddart, Ellis Rowan and Marianne North.

Martha King’s situation as an early settler was full of hardship – all the family’s possessions were lost when the coast ship bringing them to Wanganui foundered – but she lived an essentially provincial life, remaining in New Plymouth for the larger part of it. Fanny Osborne’s life on Great Barrier Island (where she had 13 children with only her husband for help and painted flowers with extraordinary clarity and no tuition) is almost impossible to imagine.

But one of the common characteristics of Dawson’s nine lady painters is their toughness. Most of them painted from necessity as well as love – Emily Harris worked herself to the bone teaching drawing, running a household and producing flower paintings – and most were physically tough too. Margaret Stoddart was a serious tramper, and Ellis Rowan, a small fair woman reputed to be delicate, travelled the remote parts of Queensland looking for flowers. Robert Bruce, her host on Murray Island in Torres Strait, observed: “Mrs R says she has only a bit of a lung … it must be a splendid bit … as she was the only one who got to the top of the hill with a native and me … while there she took two outline sketches.”

In her introduction Dawson describes Lady Painters as “fundamentally a social history, concerned rather more with the painters than the paintings.” Dawson’s biographical essays are interspersed with colour plates of each artist’s work and the book as a whole is beautifully produced, its silver and green dustjacket featuring Fanny Osborne’s painting of puawhananga, the lovely large-flowered clematis paniculata.

Dawson has clearly done a lot of work. Each artist’s life is reconstructed from a wide range of materials – letters, diaries and other published accounts, of which there are many as all the artists Dawson has included are already well-known. She provides engaging sketches in the biographical mode of Portraits of Great Women. However, this is not a book for a historian or a scholar. Dawson includes a list of references at the end of each chapter but seldom footnotes or acknowledges sources or quotations in the text.

Most of what she writes is heavily dependent on other people’s scholarship, and where the gaps cannot be filled from documentary history she moves to the conditional and imagines her subject’s likely responses. On Georgina Hetley’s sojourn in Madeira when she finished working at Kew, Dawson writes: “Georgina would have revisited old haunts, tended her father’s grave, sat and drunk Madeira wine as the sun dipped behind the canary palms.” For my taste, the text is a bit short on dates and some kinds of information and a bit long on cosy and chatty interventions from the author, including letting us know where she held her wedding reception.

I would have liked a bit more information on the business of being a lady painter. What did materials cost? How were they obtained? What kind of prices did they get for their work and what is it worth now? F Bruce Sampson in his Early New Zealand Botanical Art notes that in 1985 a copy of Georgina Hetley’s The Native Flowers of New Zealand was advertised for sale at $1,850. And of course the popularity of flower painting and botanical research was a global phenomenon – referred to recently as “plant imperialism” – and has been the subject of considerable international research in recent years. Dawson’s text does suggest some of these networks and connections – the link to Kew, for example, with both Hetley and Marianne North – but generally she is more focussed on the personal detail of her subjects’ lives than their place in a larger intellectual culture or their conceptions of themselves as artists. Ellis Rowan, an Australian, spent several years in the States painting American wildflowers and had a huge international reputation which tells you something about the portability and importance of botanical art.

Lady Painters is a superior coffee-table book. Even with the wonderful pictures and fascinating material, it doesn’t really do justice to its subject, but is nevertheless a pleasure to read and own.

Lydia Wevers is a Wellington researcher.

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