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

X — Mr and Mrs Featon's Art Album

page 93

Mr and Mrs Featon's Art Album

When Mr and Mrs E. H. Featon's The Art Album of New Zealand Flora; being a systematic and popular description of the native flowering plants of New Zealand and the adjacent islands was published (1887-9), it made history. It was the first fully coloured art book to be printed in New Zealand. Printers and publishers were the Wellington firm Bock and Cousins. The quality of the chromolithographs was high and, as the Featons proudly noted in their preface, demonstrated that "New Zealand is not behindhand in the production of the highest class of chromo-lithographic work, and that the possibility of competing with the older countries in the issue of works of excellence is more than assured." William R. Bock (1847-1932), the son of a well-known engraver and portrait painter, was born in Hobart and came to New Zealand in 1868. He became manager of Lyon and Blair, a large Wellington firm of booksellers and printers. In 1878 he founded his own printing business, first with Henry Elliot and then with Alfred Cousins. The partnership was dissolved soon after publication of the Art Album. Bock was a skilled engraver and designer of crests, and the designs, formed by assembling a wide range of type ornaments, that adorn chapter headings and so on are examples of his work.

The Art Album contains thirty-nine plates and a frontispiece. Most plates illustrate a single species, but some, especially those depicting herbs, show several different plants; one Plate illustrates ten different species. With a few exceptions, illustrations are natural size. The frontispiece is a striking garland of ferns, grasses, foliage, flowers and fruits. Sarah Ann Featon painted the watercolours for the plates, and her husband, Edward Henry Featon, wrote the text. Some seventy genera of native dicotyledonous flowering plants are described and fifty-three of these are illustrated.

Characteristic features of the plant are quoted from J. D. Hooker's Handbook of the New Zealand Flora (1864, 1867). Edward Featon's descriptions of each plant and its distribution are written in an enthusiastic manner, but the extravagant style seems old-fashioned today. The large-flowered clematis, for example, "climbs the loftiest trees . . . garlands them with its chaste flowers . . . gladdens the Spring . . . defy all attempts, at the page 94 hands of the covetous ones below to possess them". Although the widespread use of New Zealand native plants in home gardens is a fairly recent event, it is clear, from the Featons' book, that by the 1880s they were being cultivated and sold by nurserymen.

Originally the Art Album was issued in three parts (1887, 1888, 1888). These parts were then issued as a single work (1889), which was labelled as volume one. Two further volumes were planned but did not eventuate. They were to include a considerable number of dicotyledonous families not in the first volume — for example, the daisy family (Compositae), the carrot family (Umbelliferae), coprosmas (Rubiaceae) and hebes (Scrophulariaceae) — as well as monocotyledonous groups (e.g. orchids) and non-flowering seed plants (conifers).

It has been written that these two additional volumes were to have been published by the Government Printer (the firm of Bock and Cousins was by then out of business), but that Sarah Featon's paintings were destroyed by a flood in the basement of the Government Printing Office, Wellington. In fact, all the original paintings used for volume one (excluding the frontispiece), and a further ninety-three plates are now in the National Museum, Wellington. These were, judging by the pencilled Plate numbers on many, clearly destined for the other two volumes. The watercolours are in good condition, with no signs of water damage. As they total more than twice the number used in volume one, it would seem that few, if any, are missing. Surprisingly, none of the plates include illustrations of grasses.

It is a mystery why the other volumes were unpublished. From letters in the National Museum, it seems that Edward Featon was the dominant partner, and it may well be that after his death in 1909 his wife did not persevere with publication plans. Also, the Government Printer may have been reluctant to undertake the enormous work involved in making the chromolithographs, a process that involved using a separate printing stone (special limestone imported from Bavaria) for each colour used in each plate.

Critics of the time were enthusiastic about the Art Album and considered it a worthy companion to Sir Walter Buller's Birds of New Zealand (1873, 1888). The illustrations are reasonably accurate, although lacking in the finest details of floral structure. Colours are bright — one present-day art critic described them as gaudy — and many plants are more vividly coloured than in real life. Although chromolithography sometimes results in colour exaggeration, examination of the original watercolours reveals that Sarah Featon used very intense colours in which little solvent is added to the pigments. Her eye for colour was better than some of the plates indicate. For example, the orange-tinted petals of a form of manuka (Leptospermum scoparium) in Plate 34 are shown more accurately in shades of pink and purple in the original watercolour.

Edward Featon, who was born in London in 1840, arrived in Auckland in 1860. He served as a volunteer in the Naval Brigade on the Waikato River and became first captain of the Auckland Artillery Volunteers. In page 95 1869, at short notice, he took this unit to Tauranga to defend the settlement against Te Kooti and his followers. He married Sarah Ann Porter in Auckland in 1870, and on the marriage certificate his occupation is given as "optician". In 1874 he joined the Lands and Survey Department as a draughtsman. A year later he was transferred to Gisborne, where he became, in time, the first District Land Officer. He retired in 1898 because of ill health, but rejoined the Department two years later and was employed until he reached the age limit (probably sixty-five). He died in Gisborne in June 1909, aged sixty-nine. While in Gisborne, Edward Featon continued to serve as an officer in the volunteers. During the Te Kooti scare in 1889 he was in charge of arms and stores in the district. He was very interested in literature and art and, as a member of the Turanganui Public Library Committee, was instrumental in planning for the construction of the first library building in Lowe Street, Gisborne.

Sarah Featon was educated by an uncle, who was interested in art. She continued to paint in later life and a grand-daughter remembered her as a tall, alert, elderly lady of determined character, who was continually occupied with painting, leaf pressing, sewing, the making of model Maori villages and other handicrafts. She died in 1927, aged seventy-nine. The Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, has a number of her later watercolours, some of which were painted within a year or two of her death. Although most are of New Zealand plants, a few are of exotics, including an attractive painting of rose flowers. The Featons had a son and a daughter, and Mrs Featon was survived by the son, Edwin.

A copy of the Art Album and some watercolours in a casket made of New Zealand woods were presented by the New Zealand Government to Queen Victoria in 1897 on the occasion of her diamond jubilee. This is now in the British Museum.

page 96

Plate 31 Ixerha brexioides (tawari)

Tawari is shown in Plate 31 of the Art Album. This illustration is of the original watercolour from which the chromolithographic Plate was made. Tawari is a northern North Island tree, up to ten metres high, which has its southern limits near Waikaremoana. Around the ovary in the centre of each flower is a nectar disc. Bees favour the flowers, and tawari honey is sometimes obtainable commercially. Before older leaves fall from the branches, they turn a bronze-red colour.

Courtesy of the Director, National Museum, Wellington

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Plate 31 Ixerba brexioides A. Cunn. (tawari) Sarah Featon

Plate 31 Ixerba brexioides A. Cunn. (tawari) Sarah Featon

Plate 32 Solanum aviculare (poroporo)

This illustration is from New Zealand Berries. Poroporo occurs as a shrub or small tree, up to three metres high, in coastal and lowland forest margins and shrubland throughout the North Island and the north of the South Island. It has been recorded as far south as Canterbury but is commonest in the Marlborough Sounds and Karamea coast regions. Poroporo occurs too in Australia and on the Kermadec, Three Kings and Chatham Islands. A member of the potato family (Solanaceae), it is a close relative of the potato itself (Solanum tuberosum). The variably shaped leaves are dark green and the berries, orange-yellow when mature, are poisonous when green. Fruits of a second native species, Solanum laciniatum, also known as poroporo, are poisonous too when green, but mature fruits of both species were used for jam-making by early settlers. Solanum laciniatum has lemon-yellow coloured berries that are somewhat more pear shaped, and occurs as far south as Dunedin. Both plants have been used for the synthesis of cortisones, used in medicine and as a source of sex hormones for contraceptive pills.

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Plate 32 Solarium aviculare Forst. f. (poroporo) Emily Harris

Plate 32 Solarium aviculare Forst. f. (poroporo) Emily Harris

Plate 33 Leucogenes grandiceps (South Island edelweiss)

This member of the daisy family (Compositae) is confined to subalpine and alpine regions in the South Island and Stewart Island. It is widespread on rocks at altitudes from 800 to 1,900 metres. The only other species of Leucogenes, the North Island edelweiss, Leucogenes leontopodium, is found in some alpine regions of the North Island from Mt Hikurangi southwards (it is absent on Mt Egmont) and reaches as far south as the north of the South Island (northwest Nelson and above the Wairau valley). The South Island edelweiss has a branching, semi-woody form. The silvery leaves are smaller and less pointed than those of the North Island plant. The European edelweiss, also a member of the Compositae, is Leontopodium alpinum.

Courtesy of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand

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Plate 33 Leucogenes grandiceps (Hook, f.) Beauverd (South Island edelweiss) Emily Harris

Plate 33 Leucogenes grandiceps (Hook, f.) Beauverd (South Island edelweiss) Emily Harris

Plate 34 Rubus parvus (creeping lawyer)

A member of the rose family (Rosaceae), Rubus is a cosmopolitan genus of some 250 species, which include raspberries, blackberries and loganberries. There are five New Zealand species. Rubus parvus differs from the other native species in having simple leaves rather than leaves consisting of several leaflets. Although Emily Harris included the creeping lawyer in her unpublished book on mountain plants, it actually occurs in lowland regions of western Nelson, Buller and Westland. However, it can extend into alpine forests up to about 1,000 metres altitude in these regions. It is a low-growing creeper with stems that root along the ground. Unlike the other native species, it bears only a few prickles on leaves and twigs. Generally, there are separate male and female flowers on different plants, but sometimes bisexual flowers are formed. The glossy, green leaves, frequently dappled with bronze, become reddish during the autumn and remain on the plants through the winter.

Courtesy of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand

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Plate 34 Rubus parvus Buchan. (creeping lawyer) Emily Harris

Plate 34 Rubus parvus Buchan. (creeping lawyer) Emily Harris