Yesterday was International Women's Day, and here at Niche, most of us are women. Today we are asking, what does it mean to be a woman who engages in the field of plant knowledge, plant care and plant service?
To do this, we're reflecting upon our lineage and remembering trailblazing women who, at least as far back as the 17th century, escaped the cloister of the garden and set out into the wild world to study and record plants and their processes. Here we present to you a list of five women who made significant contributions to the field of botanical science through botanical illustration:
1. Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717)
Maria Sibylla Merian was a Swiss naturalist and artist who was one of the first naturalists to have studied insects. After 20 years of marriage, Merian left her husband and embraced celibacy, moving with her mother and two daughters to join a religious sect called the Labadists in the Netherlands. Over her life, she would spend years traveling and sketching the plant life, animals and insects of Surinam, work which would eventually culminate in an illustrated book entitled Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium. She documented and illustrated the life cycles of 186 insect species, some of which had been previously unknown. Through her work, she observed a process of metamorphosis that contradicted ideas of her time about how insects developed.
2. eLIZABETH bLACKWELL (1707-1758)
Elizabeth Blackwell turned to botanical illustration to get her husband out of jail. Alexander Blackwell seemed to be drawn to dodgy business practices, forcing the two of them to flee to London to escape punishment for his sham physician's practice. In London, he became a publisher without taking up the four years of training and landed himself in debtors prison when he was unable to pay the fines he accrued as a result. Looking for a way to pay off her husband's fines, Elizabeth Blackwell saw a need for a physician's reference book that would not only document the medicinal qualities of plants and herbs, but also include illustrations so that it could be used to identify the plants. She called her book A Curious Herbal, and was able to get her husband out of prison with the profits. Hers was the first herbal ever to exist in England.
3. Marianne North (1830-1890)
Marianne North was born to an affluent family that backed her pursuits of singing and painting as acceptable hobbies for a young lady. She developed a love for exotic plants during visits to the Palm House at Kew, which was built by family friend & Director of Kew, Sir William Hooker. North's father left a significant inheritance, which she shared with no spouse as she recoiled at the thought of marriage, thinking that it turned women into 'a sort of upper servant’. Aided by her family's political connections, she travelled the world on her own, painting plants and flowers. She over 900 species of plants, producing a whopping 833 paintings from 17 countries in 14 years. In her final years of life wrote an autobiography entitled Recollection and Further Recollection of a Happy Life: being the Autobiography of Marianne North.
4. Anne Pratt (1806-1893)
As a child, Anne Pratt suffered from poor health and would pass the hours drawing while her siblings played outside - practice that would prove to make her into one of the best known botanical illustrators of the Victorian age. She brought botanical appreciation and knowledge to the masses, writing and illustrating twenty books on botany aimed primarily at a popular audience. However, although her illustrations were beautiful, accurate and widely enjoyed, Pratt still could not escape criticism for her lack of formal training. Famously, art historian Wilfred Blunt wrote that her illustrations "owe a good deal to the artists...who redrew them on stone." As Blunt offered nothing to back up this claim, the baselessness of his accusation is now widely acknowledged.
5. Margaret Mee (1909-1988)
In her early life, Margaret Mee was passionate about political issues and the fight against fascism. She was a union activist with her first husband and she worked as a machinist and a draughtswoman during the second World War. She began drawing and painting the plants of Brazil when she moved there with her second husband. During her canoe trips on the Amazon to paint the exotic flora of the Brazilian jungles, Mee witnessed firsthand the damage caused to the fragile environment by mining and deforestation. As a result, Mee became one of the first vocal conservationists, raising her voice to advocate for the preservation of the Amazon rainforest habitat.
More FEmale Botanical Illustrators:
Henrietta Maria Moriarty
Miss Sarah Anne Drake
Jane Webb Loudon
Berthe Hoola van Nooten
Lady Arabella Roupell
Anna Maria Hussey
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