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


page 10


Prehistoric people drew animals long before plants. Game animals were, it is thought, first portrayed on the walls of caves in the belief that this would cast a spell on them and enable them to be more easily hunted. The shift from nomadic hunting, supplemented by gathering the fruits of wild species, to the cultivation of plants was associated with the formation of villages and the beginnings of civilisation some 10,000 years ago. Not long ago really, when one considers that humans had evolved more than two million years previously. The first plants illustrated were domesticated ones and they were used mostly in decorative and religious art. For example, maize or Indian corn (Zea mays), which was by far the most important food plant of the Americas, is frequently depicted in stone monuments of the Aztec and Maya cultures. Later, medicinal plants were illustrated in woodcuts printed in herbals, which were introduced in Europe about A.D. 1400.

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, botanical art in Europe reached unsurpassed heights. The discovery of new plants in recently explored and exotic countries provided much of the stimulus for this work. Further impetus for classifying and illustrating plants and animals was provided by the publication in the mid-eighteenth century of Linnaeus's binomial system, still used today. By this system, every plant or animal can be named using two words, the first being the genus to which it belongs and the second, the species that distinguishes it from other members of the genus. By the time the New Zealand Company was sending British settlers to New Zealand in the 1840s, botany had become very popular in Great Britain. Plants from many parts of the world were cultivated, and numerous books of plant paintings were published, some in serial form. A considerable number of botanical and horticultural periodicals, illustrated with coloured plates of flowers, had been initiated. Although most of the best-known botanical artists of the time were men, flower painting, like piano playing, was considered a very desirable accomplishment for a fashionable young lady. Many popular flower books of the nineteenth century were of a sentimental rather than a scientific nature. Pictures were not always very accurate, and sometimes the beauties of a particular plant were praised in "delightfully awful" verse. Botanical copybooks (containing plant outlines for the would-be artist to colour in) and treatises on flower painting were also in vogue. Flower painting remained popular in Europe throughout the nineteenth century but suffered something of an eclipse with the rise of photography.

Illustrations of New Zealand plants first appeared in print before the end of the eighteenth century. By 1914, when Thomas F. Cheeseman's two- page 11 volume Illustrations of the New Zealand Flora was published, some 1,000 species of native vascular plants (ferns and fern allies, conifers and flowering plants) had been illustrated in books or magazines. For several decades following the appearance of Cheeseman's Illustrations, photography was used almost exclusively to depict the New Zealand flora, as in the books of Leonard Cockayne. One of the most striking black-and-white photographic works to appear was William C. Davies' New Zealand Native Plant Studies (1956).

In the last twenty years there has been a resurgence of interest in New Zealand in botanical painting and drawing. Today there are a number of botanical artists and illustrators of a high calibre, the most notable of whom is Nancy M. Adams. Other fine botanical artists include Audrey Eagle, R. Bruce Irwin, G. Marie Taylor, Keith R. West and Hugh D. Wilson. Today, too, the drawings of Rei Hamon are in considerable demand. Rei Hamon is, it seems, the first professional artist of part-Maori descent to specialise in illustrating New Zealand vegetation. Many of his works are done imaginatively, from memory, and therefore the plants he illustrates are sometimes quite "idealised".

This book covers botanical illustrations of New Zealand plants from the time of James Cook's first voyage to New Zealand (1769-70) to the appearance of Cheeseman's Illustrations (1914). In general, only artists whose works have been published in books or periodicals are represented. Cheeseman's Illustrations seems a convenient cut-off point, in view of the time span before other books appeared and by virtue of the fact that by this time a considerable proportion of the flora had been illustrated. Many of these illustrations are, as Cheeseman noted, "beautifully executed plates . . . exquisite works of art". Furthermore, the books and journals in which they appeared are now valuable and scarce, most of them housed in the rare books sections of libraries. Recently, for example, a copy of Mrs Hetley's The Native Flowers of New Zealand was advertised for sale at $1,850. It therefore seems important to make available a selection of illustrations from these works, to comment on them and to give brief biographical details of the artists and botanists involved.

To the botanist or horticulturist, a painting or drawing of a plant should be sufficiently detailed (with, if necessary, diagnostic features shown in separate, enlarged illustrations) to enable identification to the level of species, or even subspecies or variety. Ideally, such an illustration should also have artistic merit. It should be pleasingly composed as well as seeming "alive". Of course, an illustration of a plant can have artistic but no botanical merit — Monet's famous impressionist paintings of waterlilies would be of little use to anyone wanting to identify the species of waterlily growing in those particular ponds! This book is devoted to illustrations that are reasonably accurate representations of New Zealand native plants. Most of them were meant to describe a plant visually in a way that photography, especially colour photography, does so well today. (An internationally outstanding page 12 example of the use of colour photography in plant illustration is John T. Salmon's The Native Trees of New Zealand (1980).)

The illustrations demonstrate a wide range of talent, from examples of the work of some of the greatest botanical artists of their time, to enthusiastic settlers whose handling of colour, line, perspective or composition did not attain the highest standards. The plants chosen for reproduction have been selected to show some of the best examples of an artist's work and to give a blend of common and less familiar plants. Only illustrations of ferns, conifers and flowering plants have been selected. Most examples are of flowering plants, and feature trees, shrubs, herbs and grasses, from coastal regions to alpine environments. (For reasons of design and economy, plates do not always fall in the relevant chapters.)

Where artists have been employed by prominent botanists who were not always illustrators themselves, I have given biographical details of the botanists as well. Two of New Zealand's greatest early botanists, Thomas Cheeseman and Thomas Kirk, are therefore considered at some length. On the other hand, a number of prominent early botanists are omitted, or receive only passing mention, because they were not prominent botanical artists themselves, nor were they associated with botanical artists. Examples include Allan and Richard Cunningham, John Bidwill, Ernest Dieffenbach and William and Henry Travers.

New Zealand is used in the widest geographical sense to include plants that occur not only on offshore islands such as the Poor Knights and the Chathams but on subantarctic islands too, for example, Campbell and Auckland Islands.

The illustrations are reproduced as close to their original size as the format of this book allows. Unpublished illustrations are shown as close to original size as page size permits.