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

Matilda Smith (1854-1926)

page 126

Matilda Smith (1854-1926)

Matilda Smith, the first botanical artist to comprehensively illustrate the New Zealand flora, was linked to J. D. Hooker, who wrote the first detailed flora of New Zealand (1864, 1867), a book that served as an inspiration to Thomas Cheeseman. A second cousin of Hooker's, she was invited to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, of which he was director, to be trained as a botanical artist. Sir Joseph was himself a botanical draughtsman of considerable ability and undertook to teach her and supervise her work. The invitation was made when the greatly talented botanical artist and lithographer Walter Hood Fitch (1817-92) withdrew his services in 1877 as illustrator of Curtis's Botanical Magazine, which Hooker edited. W. H. Fitch had prepared most of the plates for this periodical since 1834, and after his resignation Hooker's daughter, Harriet Ann, later Lady Thiselton-Dyer (1854-1946), "held the fort" until Matilda arrived.

Miss Smith was born in Bombay on 30 July 1854, and came to England in her infancy. Her first drawing for the Botanical Magazine was in October 1878, and from 1887 to 1920 she was practically sole artist, contributing some 2,300 plates, only 600 fewer than Fitch, by the time her last one appeared in the February 1923 issue. Matilda Smith frankly acknowledged her admiration for her predecessor's work and her inability to emulate it. Nevertheless, she became a talented botanical artist, preparing many of the lithographs from her drawings. She contributed also more than 1,500 plates to Hooker's Icones Plantarum, which illustrated and described plants selected from Kew Herbarium.

Matilda Smith was noted for her skill in "re-animating dried, flattened specimens, often of an imperfect character". In addition to the floras mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, she illustrated a number of other books, including Watt's The Wild and Cultivated Cotton Plants of the World (1907). Her penmanship was very neat and she had remarkable skill in making copies of plates to complete imperfect volumes in the Kew Library.

Although associated with Kew for nearly fifty years, Matilda Smith was not appointed official artist until 1898, and even then was employed for only two days a week. This arrangement enabled her to continue working on Curtis's Botanical Magazine and Icones Plantarum and to undertake commissions for any unofficial publications. She retired in 1921.

Matilda Smith gave freely of her time to assist visitors to Kew and took an active part in local public matters. She was the first woman to be appointed president of the Kew Guild, an organisation of senior employees of Kew. In 1921 she became the second woman to be elected an associate of the Linnean Society of London. She was awarded the Silver Veitch Memorial Medal of the Royal Horticultural Society "for her botanical draughtsmanship, especially in connection with the Botanical Magazine". Two plants have been named after her, Smithiantha, a member of the family Gesneriaceae, which includes the African violet (Saintpaulia), and Smi thiella, a Himalayan member of the nettle family (Urticaceae).