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


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The illustrations reproduced in this book span nearly 150 years. The most remarkable botanical artist to illustrate New Zealand plants during that time was surely Sydney Parkinson. He was obliged to work under more difficult conditions than other artists mentioned, with the possible exception of George Forster. Despite the difficulties of frequently working in an ill-lit cabin on a small pitching and tossing sailing ship, he produced in a very short time over 200 watercolours of New Zealand plants. Although most of these illustrations were incomplete, he filled in sufficient detail to enable the skilled illustrators Joseph Banks hired after the voyage to complete them. These finished watercolours have all the detailed accuracy and, with a few exceptions, colour fidelity of the very best large-format colour photographs. This achievement was not Parkinson's alone, for Banks and So-lander kept a critical eye on his work throughout the voyage. Sydney Parkinson did, as noted, use "artistic licence" at times in his landscape paintings, but Banks was a stickler for strict accuracy in the portrayal of plants and animals. Sydney Parkinson's illustration was, though, more than Banks's "colour camera", as the artistic and pleasing way in which the paintings are composed demonstrates.

An interesting thread runs through the 150-year time span in the form of William and Joseph Hooker. Banks did much to inspire William Hooker to specialise in botany and no doubt regaled him with incidents that took place during the voyage of the Endeavour. Banks also helped to secure William Hooker's first professional botanical appointment and laid the foundation for Hooker to become director of Kew Gardens twenty years after Banks's death. This institution has, more than any other, increased our knowledge of the world's flora. William Hooker must have admired Parkinson's illustrations during some of the visits he had made to Banks in London.

Hooker not only was a fine artist himself, as Plate 14 shows, but had the ability to instruct others with artistic talent so that they became outstanding botanical artists, as in the case of his protege Walter Fitch. Fitch became William Hooker's artistic alter ego when the latter gave up illustrating on account of the pressure of other duties. Joseph Hooker, through inheritance and tutoring, acquired much of his father's artistic skill and developed a rapport with Walter Fitch too. Accordingly, Fitch was able to produce excellent detailed illustrations from Joseph's rough sketches and the specimens he had collected for such works as Flora Antarctica and Flora Novae-Zelandiae. Walter Fitch's skill as an artist and lithographer was passed on to his nephew John Fitch, who not only prepared many fine page 130 lithographs of New Zealand plants for Curtis's Botanical Magazine, but did the lithography for Cheeseman's Illustrations. A further link with the Hookers was that it was Joseph's cousin, Matilda Smith, who did the drawings for Illustrations of the New Zealand Flora. Joseph Hooker was as adept at training her as a botanical artist as his father had been with Walter Fitch, although it seems that Matilda Smith arrived at Kew with considerably less artistic skill than Walter Fitch had when William Hooker first met him. There were, even, tenuous links between the Hookers and some of the French illustrators I have mentioned. For example, William Hooker, on his first visit to the Continent in 1814, met Bory de Saint-Vincent, with whom he maintained a life-long correspondence. Bory de Saint-Vincent, as noted in chapter III, contributed some illustrations and text to the Voyage . . . La Coquille.

The influence of the Hookers and their artists was not lost on some of the botanical artists resident in New Zealand at the time, as the botanical illustrations by Walter and John Fitch pasted in John Buchanan's scrapbooks demonstrate.

Of the New Zealand resident artists considered in this book, Martha King seems closest to the Sydney Parkinson mould, by virtue of the accuracy, faithfulness of colour and pleasing composition of her paintings. Emily Harris seems to possess the most distinctive style; some of her paintings, especially those of the two sets issued by the Turnbull Library, leave no doubt as to their author. They may lack the finest detail and fidelity of the best scientific botanical illustrations, but as works of art they offer much.

By the time Cheeseman's Illustrations of the New Zealand Flora was in preparation, there were, as illustrations in this book indicate, botanical artists of considerable talent resident in New Zealand. These artists could, under the guidance of a botanist with a keen eye, have prepared suitable illustrations for Cheeseman. In fact, Cheeseman need not have looked further than his sister Emma, as her paintings of New Zealand orchids, now in the Auckland Institute and Museum, show. Be that as it may, Cheeseman considered there was no "competent botanical artist resident in New Zealand", and it must be admitted that Matilda Smith and John Fitch made an excellent job of the Illustrations, a work that, at the time (1914) and for many years to come, was the most comprehensive set of detailed illustrations of New Zealand plants.

I have not attempted in this book to cover all competent botanical artists who illustrated New Zealand plants up to 1914. Rather, I have considered artists who, in general, had illustrations published in their lifetime, with the exception of Sydney Parkinson.

I have not confined myself to reproducing only those examples of an artist's work that had already been published. Choice of artists has, of course, been a personal one. I have chosen to reproduce, in most instances, several examples of one artist's work in preference to other artists whose work I was less enthusiastic about.

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It is only in recent years that the paintings of some talented nineteenth-century New Zealand botanical artists — for example, Martha King — have been "rediscovered". Another example is Fanny Bertha Good (1860-1950), who lived in Taranaki throughout her long life and received little recognition. Her paintings, 260 of which are now in the Taranaki Museum in New Plymouth, seem closest in style to those of Emily Harris.