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

XV — Thomas Cheeseman's Illustrations of the New Zealand Flora

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Thomas Cheeseman's Illustrations of the New Zealand Flora

This two-volume work was published by the New Zealand Government Printer in 1914. It contains 251 uncoloured lithographic plates, illustrating 268 species of native flowering plants, conifers, ferns and fern allies. At the time of its appearance, Thomas Cheeseman was the most notable botanical taxonomist in New Zealand. Illustrations was preceded by his unillustrated Manual of the New Zealand Flora (Government Printer, 1906). In fact, Cheeseman's Manual, a second edition of which appeared in 1925, two years after he died, remained the "official" New Zealand flora until the appearance in 1961 of volume I of Flora of New Zealand by H. H. Allan.

Planning the Illustrations

Originally it was envisaged that the Illustrations would appear simultaneously with the Manual, but this would have led to a delay in the appearance of the latter. Originally, too, it was suggested that the Illustrations would comprise, on a reduced scale, reproductions of the unpublished engravings resulting from Cook's first voyage, in which case this book would have gone full circle.

Plate 48 Anarthropteris lanceolata (fern)

This fern has suffered numerous name changes; in the Illustrations it is known as Polypodium dictyopteris. A distinctive fern, with leaves from five to twenty-five centimetres long, it is common as an epiphyte on tree trunks but occurs too on rocks or banks in lowland forest. The fern has a condensed rhizome (stem) to which woolly rootlets are attached. Sporangia are grouped in hemispherical clusters in two rows, one on each side of the midrib, on the underside of the leaves. The presence of each group of sporangia is indicated by a bulge on the upper surface of the leaf. Anarthropteris occurs throughout the North Island and the north and west of the South Island as far as Greymouth.

Figure 1, two clusters (sori) of sporangia (x3); figure 2, two sporangia that contain the spores by which ferns reproduce, and three associated multicellular hairs (considerably enlarged but magnification not stated).

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Plate 48 Anarthropteris lanceolata (J. Smith) L. B. Moore Matilda Smith (in Cheeseman's Illustrations)

Plate 48 Anarthropteris lanceolata (J. Smith) L. B. Moore Matilda Smith (in Cheeseman's Illustrations)

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The trustees of the British Museum, owners of the plates, were willing to give permission. However, the plants collected on that voyage were obtained from just a few coastal localities in the North Island and the north of the South Island. They would therefore give a very incomplete picture of the flora. Cheeseman noted too: "the plates themselves, although accurate, and undoubtedly of great historic value, were of somewhat antiquated style, and were deficient in the microscopic analyses now considered essential in all really good botanical drawings."

A second suggestion was that the plates in J. D. Hooker's Flora Novae-Zelandiae (1852-5) and Flora Tasmaniae (1855-60) might be reproduced by photolithography, supplemented perhaps with illustrations of New Zealand plants that had been published in Curtis's Botanical Magazine and Icones Plantarum. Cheeseman pointed out that, although one could not object to the style and character of these plates, they did not give an all-round view of the flora.

Few alpine plants were included and important genera, such as Coprosma, were inadequately represented. Some new illustrations could have been prepared to "fill up the blanks", but "the two classes of plates — old and new — would not form a harmonious whole". He therefore recommended to the Education Department that all the plates should be specially drawn up for the work, and this was accepted. Thomas Cheeseman noted in the preface:

I took it for granted that the Government had no desire to trouble with the preparation of plates of a character capable of being undertaken by an enterprising publisher, and treated in a sufficiently popular manner to command a remunerative sale, or, in other words, that there was no intention of producing a series of drawings selected mainly on account of the beauty and attractiveness of the plants portrayed. I assumed that the true object of the work was to issue plates of an educational character, so selected as to present an accurate and comprehensive idea of the main features of the flora, and so designed and executed as to be of real use in the study and identification of the plants of the Dominion. Furthermore, as the work would be issued under the auspices of the Government of the Dominion, it was felt that there would be no necessity to sacrifice scientific accuracy and excellence of design for the sake of cheap production.

The next task was to select an artist. Although there were competent botanical artists living in New Zealand, as many of the foregoing plates have illustrated, Cheeseman was not happy to use any of them. He stated that it

would have been a satisfaction, both to the Government and myself, if there had been some competent botanical artist resident in New Zealand to whom the work could have been entrusted, but no person possessing the necessary qualifications could be found. Nor is this at all surprising, for botanical drawing, together with a knowledge of how to prepare the microscopical analyses required, is an art in itself; and the number of good botanical artists in England even is small. I was therefore compelled to seek for a competent person outside the Dominion, and after some negotiation it was decided to offer the work to Miss Matilda Smith, of the Royal Herbarium, Kew.

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Matilda Smith was certainly well qualified. For some time previously she had been sole artist for Curtis's Botanical Magazine and J. D. Hooker's Icones Plantarum, and had illustrated a number of floras including Aitchinson's Botany of the Afghanistan Delimitation Commission (1888), Collett's Flora Simlensis (1902) and Johnston's Liberia (1906). Nearly 5,000 of her drawings had been published before Illustrations of the New Zealand Flora appeared. The lithographs were made by J. N. Fitch, nephew of W. H. Fitch, the latter of whom has been described as the most prolific of all botanical artists. The plates were printed in London by West, Newman and Company, and the text by John Mackay, Government Printer, Wellington. Matilda Smith remained in England, and plants were collected (mostly by Cheeseman), pressed, dried and despatched to Kew. Fresh specimens were photographed, and flowers and fruits preserved in fluid and forwarded to her so that the drawings could be as lifelike as circumstances permitted. To avoid the cjelays that would be involved in sending proofs of the drawings and lithographs to and from England and New Zealand, Mr W B. Hemsley, late assistant director of Kew, acted as supervisor. He guided the artist in the dissection of flowers and fruits, indicated which parts were to be shown as separate enlargements on each plate, examined proofs and gave final approval for printing.

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".

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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).

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John Nugent Fitch (1843-1927)

J. N. Fitch, who prepared the lithographs for the Illustrations, has been described as second only to his uncle, W. H. Fitch, in industry. He lithographed nearly 2,500 drawings for Curtis's Botanical Magazine, in a style difficult to distinguish from that of his uncle, from whom he had received most of his instruction in drawing. He was a talented artist whose work included the illustrations (in colour) for the eleven-volume The Orchid Album by R. Warner and B. S. Williams (1882-97), and illustrations in Horwood's A New British Flora (1919). He was elected a fellow of the Linnean Society in 1877. His artistic career was terminated in 1920 by an illness that resulted in the loss of the use of his fingers. In appreciation of his work, he received a Civil List pension a few years before he died. Wilfrid Blunt, in probably the most authoritative book on botanical art, The Art of Botanical Illustration, is critical of Matilda Smith's skills. He commented that she remained to the end a rather fumbling draughtsman, more remembered for her great pains and untiring efforts than for her skill. He added, "she owed much to John Fitch, who made some attractive lithographs from her rather hesitant sketches". The illustrations in Cheeseman's book are clearly skilfully done, but the extent to which their excellence is due to "retouching" by John Fitch when he made the lithographs is an interesting question. Fortunately, it can be answered, for the original pencil drawings Matilda Smith prepared for the Illustrations are at the Auckland Institute and Museum. These drawings, signed by Miss Smith, differ little from the lithographs apart from being mirror images, as is characteristic of lithography. They demonstrate unequivocally that Fitch added few extra touches apart from some finer shading.

The Illustrations

Illustrations of the New Zealand Flora remained for many decades the most comprehensive and accurate collection of illustrations of the native flora. Today, a good copy of this work fetches several hundred dollars. Each Plate is usually accompanied by a single page of text by Thomas Cheeseman. A valuable feature is that it indicates who was the first to collect the plant and the date and location of this discovery. This is followed by a summary of its range of distribution and a brief description of the plant. Associated plants and any economic uses are also frequently noted. The legend for each Plate indicates where the particular plant illustrated was collected. Most drawings are natural size and include enlarged figures of flowers and fruits, frequently showing dissections. It is usual for a single plant species to be illustrated in each plate, but some smaller plants (for example, some orchids) are shown two per plate. At the end of the second volume is a list of illustrations of native seed plants and ferns that had appeared prior to the publication of Illustrations.