I picked up some beautiful books from the library today: A Botanical Life: Robert David Fitzgerald and Collecting Ladies: Ferdinand Von Mueller and Women Botanical Artists both by Penny Olsen and published by the National Library of Australia.
It didn’t take very long to read A Botanical Life. Not all that much is known about Robert David Fitzgerald (1830-1892) and although he is an interesting fellow, it’s the gorgeous full-colour reproductions of his botanical paintings that enticed me to borrow this book. I can’t reproduce the paintings here because of copyright but they are available for viewing in a digital collection at the NLA.
Fitzgerald emigrated from Ireland and became a colonial surveyor in New South Wales during the period of free selections. This was the time when the NSW parliament passed the 1861 Crown Lands – Free Selections Act which was intended to reduce the power of the squatters who had helped themselves to land in the free-for-all during early settlement. The Acts made all leasehold land available for selection and sale, and so Fitzgerald was extremely busy. He rose to become the head of the Lands Department, restoring to some extent the family fortunes which had been lost during the potato famine of 1846-7. He had a contented family life, marrying Emily Blackwell in 1860 and raising six children, to whom he passed on his love of nature and art.
Fitzgerald was a keen ornithologist, but he became interested in orchids on one of his field trips and subsequently established at his home in Hunters Hill an ingenious greenhouse for growing rare ferns, mosses, orchids and other plants. He and the children tramped the district searching for orchids – and the reader gets some idea of the still mostly natural landscape at that time from the lovely double-page-spread painting by S. Sedgfield, of Ferry St in Hunters Hill overlooking the Parramatta River. Fitzgerald exhibited his first botanical drawings to acclaim in 1865 but his career as a ‘gentleman naturalist’ really took off in 1869 when he made a trip to Lord Howe Island and made his discovery of the giant epacrid Dracophyllum fitzgeraldii (known to ordinary mortals as a spreading many-branched tree). He then went on to exhibit drawings and woodcuts of Australian orchids at agricultural shows, and Ferdinand von Mueller, Victoria’s Government Botanist (who became director of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne) named an orchid after him in tribute -Sarcochilus fitzgeraldii (otherwise known as the Ravine Orchid).
Darwin was impressed too, when Fitzgerald sent him the first volume of Australian Orchids and the two apparently conducted a lively correspondence about whether our orchids were cross-fertilised by animals such as insects. Darwin apparently was not entirely convinced that work of any scientific value could occur in a colony so far from the intellectual centres of Britain and Europe, but Fitzgerald eventually proved to Darwin that some orchids do indeed self fertilise and Darwin included this work in one of his books about orchids.
Publisher: National Library of Australia, 2013
Source: Casey-Cardinia Library