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

Thomas Cheeseman (1846-1923)

Thomas Cheeseman (1846-1923)

Thomas Frederic (sometimes incorrectly spelt as Frederick) Cheeseman was born at Hull, Yorkshire, in 1846. His father, the Rev. Thomas Cheeseman, was a popular Methodist minister. He took his family to New Zealand in 1854 in the hope that a throat ailment, aggravated by preaching, might be cured in the better climate that his brother-in-law assured him existed in Auckland. Cheeseman's daughter, who was interviewed by Rewa Glenn in The Botanical Explorers of New Zealand (1950), stated that her father, who was eight years old when the voyage was made, probably saved the ship, the Artemisia, from being wrecked near North Cape. He noticed a grating sound while lying in his bunk in the bow of the ship and immediately alerted the captain, who found they had hit a reef. Thomas Cheeseman's interest in botany is said to have shown itself on the very day of arrival in Auckland, for he rushed to a tree fern growing on the foreshore, removed a frond and insisted on taking it to his uncle's house in Panmure, where the family stayed for a time.

The Rev. Thomas Cheeseman, who has been described as a "dissenting minister" and is not listed in the archives of the Methodist Church of New Zealand, took a prominent part in public life and was, for a time, a member of the Auckland Provincial Council. He was president of a committee that initiated the railways but was later taken over by the Government. A keen astronomer, he had his own observatory in Remuera. Thomas Cheeseman was educated at Parnell Grammar School, and later, when the family moved to Meadowbank, he attended St John's College until he was nineteen. On page 124 leaving college he worked on a farm his father had purchased. His interest in natural history, especially botany, was kindled by the appearance of Sir Joseph D. Hooker's Handbook of the New Zealand Flora (1864, 1867). The New Zealand Institute (which later became the Royal Society of New Zealand) was founded in 1867 and this would have provided further stimulus.

Thomas started what became a popular field club with his three sisters, Emma, Nelly and Clara. As a result of his numerous excursions in the Auckland region, Cheeseman published his first paper, "On the Botany of the Titirangi District of the Province of Auckland", in the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute, volume 4, 1872. This remains the only account of the vegetation of the Waitakere ranges before it was drastically modified by settlers. Dr Leonard Cockayne, New Zealand's most famous plant ecologist, noted how accurate and comprehensive this account of plant life was and marvelled that Cheeseman's botanical knowledge had been acquired "unaided in any way".

Cheeseman became interested in orchids, prompted no doubt by the publication of Charles Darwin's book The Fertilisation of Orchids (1862), and made a detailed study of cross-pollination in the greenhood orchid, Pterostylis. This was published in the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute in 1873. He began to correspond with overseas biologists and sent an account of his observations on orchids to J. D. Hooker at Kew. Hooker passed this information on to Darwin, who, in a later edition of his book on orchids, gave an account of pollination in Pterostylis, concluding with the acknowledgement "All that I have here said is taken from the admirable description given by Mr Cheeseman". Thomas received a copy of this edition, inscribed "With the Author's compliments and respect".

By now Cheeseman's botanical work was becoming well known, and in 1874 he was appointed secretary of the Auckland Institute and curator of the museum. He had, in fact, served in an acting capacity as curator for some time before that. The museum was then in its infancy and temporarily located in the old post office in Princes Street. It was a small, two-roomed, weatherboard building. Cheeseman's sister Emma learnt the skill of taxidermy and prepared bird specimens for him at home. Thomas's three sisters were skilled artists, and the Auckland Museum possesses some of Emma's botanical watercolours. Clara wrote magazine articles and a novel, The Rolling Stone. Thomas Cheeseman directed the Auckland Museum for fifty years. In 1889 he married Ellen Cawkwell. They had a son, Major Guy Cheeseman, and a daughter, who became Mrs Grant-Taylor.

Although Cheeseman was primarily a botanist, he was also interested in zoology and ethnology. Of 101 published papers and books, twenty-two deal with the latter two subjects. It has been stated that he could have achieved equal renown in zoology had he chosen to make that subject his life's work. Nor were his botanical studies of an academic nature alone. In the words of Cockayne, his studies were "of high significance for agriculture, page 125 horticulture and forestry", but his greatest contributions were to floristic botany.

Much of New Zealand was unexplored botanically when he began his studies. In 1887 he accompanied an expedition to the Kermadec Islands and reported on their flora. He explored also the Three Kings and found several new plants. In 1899 Thomas and Ellen Cheeseman went on a Government trip to the Cook Islands. Again Thomas almost experienced a shipwreck, for their vessel was caught for a day on a reef fringing Rarotonga. His report on its flora was published in the prestigious Transactions of the Linnean Society of London. For fifty years, during his vacations, he botanised over much of the North Island and parts of the South Island. His observations and the new species he described paved the way for his Manual of the New Zealand Flora. Some of his publications were broad and philosophical, for example, his writings on the origin of the New Zealand subantarctic flora.

The Auckland Museum was developed to a high standard by Cheeseman, despite having never more than three staff. The displays, some of which still survive, were models of neatness, informative and painstakingly compiled. Dr A. W. B. Powell, a member of the scientific staff of the museum for many years, has written that Cheeseman was no dry-as-dust scientist. He gave freely of his time, no matter what the enquiry, but he could on occasion become abrupt, even to the point of rudeness, if confronted with pomposity. Dr Powell added, "To adults he gave the impression of studious abstraction, but in the presence of youth his manner would relax, and an inborn — only lightly concealed sense of humour — would emerge." He was noted for his punctuality, and it was said that in the days when he rode a horse to the museum and passed by a certain homestead, the occupants would check their clock to ensure it was keeping good time! Unfortunately he died not long before the Auckland War Memorial Museum, which he had helped to plan, was built. The museum received Cheeseman's extensive herbarium, "a great botanical asset". In 1946 the Cheeseman Memorial Hall was opened in the museum, and his memory is today kept alive by the museum with the Cheeseman Memorial Lectures and occasional special displays on botanical themes.

Thomas Cheeseman received many distinguished awards, including a fellowship of the Linnean Society of London, a fellowship of the Zoological Society, corresponding membership of the Botanical Society of Edinburgh, presidency of the New Zealand Institute in 1911, an original fellowship of the New Zealand Institute and, shortly before he died, the Gold Medal of the Linnean Society, one of the highest distinctions science can offer. He died of a heart attack on 15 October 1923.

His greatest contribution to New Zealand botany was his Manual of the New Zealand Flora, a work that, as Cockayne put it, "can be used with all confidence in the certain knowledge that it contains the well-considered conclusions of a master mind".