Title: Early New Zealand Botanical Art

Author: F. Bruce Sampson

Publication details: Reed Methuen, 1985, Auckland

Digital publication kindly authorised by: F. Bruce Sampson

Part of: New Zealand Texts Collection

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Early New Zealand Botanical Art

The illustrations

page 101

The illustrations

As others have noted, Emily Harris's paintings vary considerably in quality and style. The lithographs in New Zealand Flowers, New Zealand Berries and New Zealand Ferns are very well composed and accurate. In the hand-coloured versions the colouring, though rather subdued, is reasonably true to life. However, these lack fine details of, for example, leaf venation and flower structure. The books lack a text except for the scientific and Maori or popular names of each plant and a sentence or two about the plant and its distribution. This information is printed below each illustration. New Zealand Berries should have been titled New Zealand Fruits, for several of the fruits illustrated are not, strictly speaking, berries.

Some of the watercolours in the Alexander Turnbull collection are fine works of art, rather than good examples of scientific botanical illustration. Janet Paul, well-known art historian, (in Women in New Zealand Society, edited by Phillida Bunkle and Beryl Hughes, published by George Allen & Unwin, 1980) described the watercolours as "poetic realisations which try to evoke the essence of a particular plant in a way more akin to a Chinese brush drawing than to the precise elegance of the French botanical engravings".

The pen, ink and watercolour originals for the unpublished New Zealand Mountain Flora (PLATES 33 and 34) are superb examples of botanical illustration. They are quite finely detailed, especially the creeping lawyer (Plate 34), and vividly and accurately coloured. The plants are shown in their environments, and this represents an advance on most of the botanical illustrations of predecessors and contemporaries. It may be that in some instances, where the plants seem to fit "uneasily" into their background, that Emily Harris did not see them in their natural habitat. In such cases the background seems to have been painted from a photograph. The twenty-nine illustrations (which include a frontispiece) are on paper about 25 x 31 centimetres and are watercolours with outlines in Indian ink. Each illustration is accompanied by a brief text, giving some details of the plants and their distribution. As was fashionable in the Victorian age, some plants are the subject of "delightfully awful" poems, written by the artist. Thus the edelweiss (Plate 33):

Enwrapped in garments soft and warm,
As robes of eider down,
And velvet capes, all starred with gold,
Serve for a royal crown.

Straight to the skies their upward gaze,
Unchecked, unblenched they turn,
As if to reach some loftier plane,
These gentle flowerets yearn.