Painting nature

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Common brown butterfly with native grasses and native violet, view of residence of Police Magistrate of Maitland in background, by Helena Scott

A fascinating exhibition currently at the Australian Museum in Sydney showcases the work of the Scott sisters, who are regarded as amongst Australia's most talented natural history artists. Harriet (1830-1907) and Helena (1832-1910) specialised in painting butterflies and moths, depicting them with native plants, giving this exhibition a great appeal to gardeners.

Born in Sydney, the sisters moved to Ash Island in the Hunter River estuary with their parents as teenagers in 1846. Their father, Alexander Walker Scott, an entrepreneur and entomologist, and their mother, Harriet Calcott, encouraged the girls to observe, collect, record and draw the rich flora and fauna of the island - in an era where women were unable to pursue a professional career in science.

Lily caterpillar on Crinum pedunculatum, with the Scott cottage on Ash Island in the background, by Harriet Scott

Their father's particular interest was Lepidoptera - butterflies and moths - and the girls produced beautiful drawings to illustrate the first volume of his magnum opus, called Australian Lepidoptera and Their Transformations (1864). The exquisitely detailed paintings depict the life-sized butterflies and moths through their complete life cycles, on the native plants that were the species' preferred hosts. The paintings are strictly scientifically precise - yet are also works of art in their composition and style. Many of the lifelike caterpillars illustrated (such as the lily borer shown above) may make gardeners shudder, being the bane of our lives as they munch through our precious plants, but the butterflies and moths are a pure delight. The sisters generally drew from live specimens, giving their work a vibrant authenticity. The plants in the paintings are wonderfully executed, and certainly gave me a new appreciation of our native flora.

Notodontid moth, Cockatoo Island in background, by Harriet Scott

In the background of many of the works, the girls painted a slightly muted scene from the broader landscape where the insects were found, providing wonderful vistas of Sydney and Newcastle in the 19th century. Views of their home on Ash Island, Cockatoo Island in Sydney Harbour, the grand stables of Government House (now the Conservatorium of Music), and The Rocks are some of those shown in the paintings in the exhibition. This was a novel aspect of the sisters' work, adding an extra dimension of historical interest to the paintings and giving information about where the creatures were found.

After the publication of their father's book, the sisters went on to illustrate other natural history literature in Sydney, and Helena executed designs for Australia's first commercially produced Christmas cards, showing stunningly painted native flowers, in 1879. Harriet produced similar cards in the following year. Helena oversaw the publication of her father's second volume of Lepidoptera by the Australian Museum, released in five parts between 1890 and 1898. On the title pages of both the Lepidoptera tomes, the sisters were given due credit for their illustrations, unusual in that era!

Display of butterfly and moth specimens at the exhibition

The current exhibition shows a number of the sisters' Lepidoptera paintings (some of them also projected on the wall in an animated form with chewing caterpillars and fluttering butterflies and moths, which the children attending the exhibition found entrancing!), as well as a wide array of butterfly and moth specimens from the museum's collection, displayed in glass cases. These are quite stunning in their range of colours, patterns and textures. Insect specimens collected by the Scott family were among the entire Lepidoptera collection sold by Helena to the Australian Museum in 1884, along with notebooks, manuscripts, diaries, drawings and paintings, some of which appear in the exhibition. The archival material remains a valuable resource: for example, when Newcastle's Kooragang Wetland Rehabilitation Project began to rehabilitate Ash Island in 1993, the Scott sisters' descriptions of the indigenous flora of the area proved most useful for the revegetation endeavours. Ash Island is now part of the larger Kooragang Island and has become a popular recreation spot, especially for bird-watchers.

I left the exhibition overawed (once more) by the wonders of nature, the passion and commitment of those who strive to document it, and the importance of close observation: something we can do in our own gardens to better understand the life going on in it.

The exhibition, Transformations: the art of the Scott sisters, continues until 25 June 2017 at the Australian Museum, 1 William Street, Sydney. Hours are 9.30 am to 5 pm.

My previous blogs at this time of year:
2010
23 May
2011
22 May
2015
24 May

Reader Comments

  • By Lorraine - 4510 (Zone:11A - Sub-tropical) Monday, 22 May 2017

    It is wonderful to discover the collections of interesting folk. Their love and delight of natures amazingness can be shared with following generations. I was pleased to marvel at Keith Carnabys collection of Jewel Beetles and Butterflies at the Tourist Information Centre in the small town of Boyupbrook in Western Australia. What a surprise to find and admire some of the results of this dedicated amateur entomologists lifelong hobby. Sounds a good find! Deirdre

  • By Kerrie - 2104 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 22 May 2017

    I must get in to this this exhibition. Hope you can, Kerrie; it is very enjoyable. Deirdre

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