Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 9, 2013

Collecting Ladies, Ferdinand Von Mueller and Women Botanical Artists, by Penny Olsen


Collecting LadiesI had two reasons for seeking out this beautiful book from the library:  I love books about art and I love the delicacy of botanical illustrations, but I’m also jazzing up a unit of work called ‘Fame!’ for my year 5 & 6 students and I’m on the lookout for biographical subjects for them to research.  I want them to think about why some people are famous even though they haven’t done anything particularly worthwhile,  and I want them to discover people who merit more fame than they have.   In particular, I’m keen for them to encounter some of the remarkable, but often overlooked women of Australian history…

Collecting Ladies, Ferdinand Von Mueller and Women Botanical Artists is perfect for my purposes.  First, I get to browse through and look at the beautiful botanical illustrations – and fantasise about owning some of them to adorn the walls of my house.  (As if!  Most of them are in the NLA Pictures Collection, and the ones that aren’t, are in the Mitchell Library; the Australian Rare Books Collection; the Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts in Tassie; the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne; other galleries and museums around Australia; and the occasional lucky private collector.)

But in addition to enjoying the lovely paintings in Collecting Ladies,  I also get to read about the fascinating Von Mueller, (1825-1896) who managed to make me feel both compassion for him – and rage.  Since The Spouse was for a time on the Royal Botanic Gardens Board in Melbourne, I thought I knew a fair bit about Ferdinand Von Mueller (née Müller) – but I did not know that he came to Melbourne from Germany because so many of his immediate family had died of TB and although the disease was thought to be hereditary, it was hoped that a cleaner, warmer climate might protect against it.  I also didn’t know that he first trained as a pharmacist, a profession which required a professional knowledge of botany, nor that he started out in Adelaide and only came to Melbourne in the wake of the 1852 Gold Rush.  By 1853 he was the first Government Botanist of Victoria, and within four years he was Director of the RBG.  (Only to lose it, later on, for being hard-to-get-along-with).  Still, even if his people-management skills were lacking, his achievements in botany, geology, zoology and exploration were prodigious and Olsen tells us that thousands turned out for his funeral when he died aged 71.  (Can you imagine hordes turning out for the funeral of any scientist today?)

But, my goodness, he played fast and loose with the affections of the hapless women he courted! Did he, as Olsen suggests, in the wake of so much bereavement fear the loss of those he loved so much that he wasn’t prepared to risk marriage?  How he wasn’t prosecuted for Breach of Promise, we’ll never really know, but the trail of plants named after his assorted lady loves hints that he was more of a ‘ladies’ man’ than a tragic figure.  The trail of broken hearts he left behind him, in an era when women were not free to have casual romantic relationships at the expense of their reputations, seems despicable.

Still, it’s Von Mueller we have to thank for enlisting hordes of women across Australia as collectors, because these enthusiasts contributed an incalculable amount to the fledgling knowledge bank of Australian botany in that era.

He had a somewhat sexist view of things, of course.  He was of the opinion that collecting flowers was a nice, ladylike thing to do:

the world of Plants … is particularly fitted, to attract the attention of the fair sex … who admire the beauties of nature, and attend them with womanly care and anxiety.

and he also thought that women had plenty of leisure for doing it:

What trouble would it be to collect and preserve flowers, and enclose in an envelope to their destination? How many ladies might devote a few leisure hours to this pursuit?

In fact only about 10% of his collectors were women, and I think we can safely assume that this had something to do with men having more leisure time, and not having to suspend operations for childbirth every now and again.  Von Mueller was, Olsen says, a ‘shameless seeker of honours’ and what he wanted was help from any source to help him achieve his ambition to complete his collection of Australian Flora.   However he also seemed to understand that women marooned in isolated outback homesteads were far from any intellectual companionship.  He offered a stimulating pastime, and (unlike many 19th century men who depended on the contribution of women in their work) he did at least promise to acknowledge the women’s contribution and to include the name of donors who made new discoveries.  He maintained an astonishing volume of correspondence – something between 2000 to 6000 letters each year – of which 12,000 are extant.

Enough about him!  Who were these remarkable women?  Olsen acknowledges that some of them have already been the subject of various publications, so she has included some less well-known women, along with less well-known examples of their art.  Broken hearted or otherwise, all of them benefited from networking with Von Mueller, and (bearing in mind that women were not allowed to enrol in universities at that time) they all enjoyed ‘a taste of scientific pursuit and time in the outdoors’ and they all contributed to the ‘emerging science of botany and its popularisation’.

Here’s one example:

Louisa Anne Meredith (1812-1895) arrived in Australian in 1839, but she wasn’t much impressed with Sydney.  Her husband Charles was a squatter who lost his property in the economic depression of 1840 but she may not have been entirely unhappy about having to move to Tasmania, not least because the climate suited her better.  She’d had the benefit of a good education in Britain, and to develop her artistic talent, took lessons from Sir Thomas Lawrence at the Royal Academy.   In her twenties she was an independent thinker and was supporting herself in the literary and artistic circles of Birmingham.  She published articles supporting the Chartists, and books, some of which she illustrated herself.  When she finally married and found herself in Tasmania, she continued writing, and astutely tapped into the enthusiastic British market for all things Australian.  She wrote literary-travel books and a couple of novels, finding more success in her career than did her hapless husband Charles.  (Until he went into politics, that is. Perhaps he didn’t need much in the way of business acumen for that…)

Louisa had four children, of whom three survived, and she managed the family and her literary and artistic career and the farm, along with moving around the Swansea district six times in 15 years.  When the family was grown, Louisa was free to become more active in collecting, and even though she wasn’t allowed to be a member or even attend meetings until 1881, she was a regular contributor to the Royal Society of Tasmania.  (It was her husband Charles who was there when the Secretary read a paper by Von Mueller announcing that he had named a new species of everlasting after her, in honour of ‘her artistic skill, her fondness for flowers and her literary accomplishments’ and her contribution to popularising ‘the local study of the lovely Tasmanian vegetation’).  She also illustrated scientific papers about fossils, collected algae, and sent prize-winning watercolours, books, and embroidery of botanical subjects to exhibitions around the world.  It is therefore saddening to read that this woman of prodigious talent died in straitened circumstances, getting by on a government pension after risking self-publication of Bush Friends and losing her savings in a bank collapse.

In the internet age, we tend to think that we can find out everything we need to know online, but a book like Collecting Ladies illustrates the limitations of internet research.  To set up a wiki about any of these women for my students to use in their projects, I need access to graphics of some sort, to brighten up the pages.  Wikipedia Commons is my usual source, but as you can see from the links in the list below, there is very little information about these women available online.  It’s this book that is going to rescue them from obscurity.

So, if you’re interested in the women below, with only a couple of exceptions, you’ll need to get hold of a copy of the book!

This Friday I’m heading down to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Cranbourne to see their new exhibition of botanical illustrations. I’m going to have my eyes peeled for any examples of the work of these Collecting Ladies!

Update 11/7/13 As you can see from the comments below, Sue at Whispering Gums had profiled Louisa Atkinson back in March, taking a particular interest in her observations about Aboriginal Australians.  Check it out here.

Author: Penny Olsen
Title: Collecting Ladies, Ferdinand Von Mueller and Women Botanical Artists
Publisher: National Library of Australia, 2013
ISBN: 9780642277534
Source: Inter-library loan from Latrobe City Library, courtesy of Casey-Cardinia Library

Availability

Fishpond: Collecting Ladies: Women Botanical Illustrators and Ferdinand Von Mueller


Responses

  1. Interesting story about Ferdinand Von Meuller, apparently the Rake of the 19th century. It takes two to play this game, and I wouldn’t let the ladies off so easily.

    • Oh, for shame, thou heartless man! I have a good mind to photocopy the story of poor jilted Euphemia and post it to you! He destroyed her letters, but she kept his tied up in a bit of ribbon will she died, a very old lady who never married. Penny Olsen says it was because he realised she was too old to bear children so he called the engagement off – and was too cowardly to tell her in person, he sent a friend with his slimy letter making all sorts of excuses. And yet she went on collecting for him! I would have sent him weeds, and made sure they weren’t interesting ones to put in his book!

      • It appears as though Von Meuller was doing exactly what the book title indicates, ‘collecting ladies’.

        • Oh yes, a very clever title!

  2. Ah this is a book I’d love to look at … you probably remember that I’ve written about Louisa Atkinson before … she did much of her collecting in the Southern Highlands and was a writer as well as a botanist/collector.

    I love the idea of your “fame” theme too. Good one Lisa.

    • Ah! So that’s why her name seemed familiar, I’d even commented about her on your blog. I wonder why it didn’t come up when I Googled her…

      • Google’s weird … I don’t know about you, but I find some of my posts come up in the first few pages and some don’t. For example, my review of The Slap I can never find in Google though I drill down pages. Is sometimes check to understand but I haven’t cracked it yet!

        • I can understand it when a lot of content comes up in a search, easy for small fry like us to be swamped and end up in the back pages. But when a search retrieves very little, it’s odd, I agree *frown*.

          • Yes, that’s what I decided about The Slap — though when you get down the pages the relevance starts to become vague and that’s when I started to wonder – and yet my Sense of an Ending review was for many months appearing very high in Google and there were a LOT of reviews for that! There’s something very sophisticated (if that’s the word) going on.

            • Google is not as ‘neutral’ and ‘objective’ as it appears to be…

              • There certainly is something going on but it has to be programmable. So I wonder what it is.


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