Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 21, 2013

A Botanical Life: Robert David Fitzgerald (2013), by Penny Olsen

A Botanical LifeI 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.

In addition to illustrating and documenting the orchids of Australia, Fitzgerald’s contribution to natural science in Australia included donating a variety of specimens and a fossil bone to the Australian Museum, but he was notable for preferring to work with living things.  He never had an herbarium and although he did eventually present 235 orchid specimens to the British Museum, he didn’t conform to the usual practice of building a collection of dried specimens for publication in a peer-reviewed journal.  Nevertheless he was awarded ‘a swag of medals’ for his work at the 1871 Agricultural Exhibition  and was also honoured with yet another plant named in his honour, the Pherosphaera fitgeraldii (or dwarf mountain pine).
In 1881 he took leave and travelled to Western Australia (an orchid lover’s paradise) and perhaps also to Hobart.  Even in retirement he remained active both in a professional capacity and in his work on Australian Orchids. Sadly he died aged only 61 before he could finish it. The project continued after his death but was stymied by funding problems and so only five of seven parts was finalised.  Nevertheless, Australian Orchids includes 200 species. 
Perhaps the achievement that many of us will remember him best for, is his success in reserving the Katoomba, Leura and Wentworth Falls in the Blue Mountains.  These beautiful places are a worthy memorial to a fine man.
Author: Penny Olsen
Title: A Botanical Life: Robert David Fitzgerald
With an Introduction to Fitzgerald’s Botanical Art by Barrie Hadlow
Publisher: National Library of Australia, 2013
ISBN: 9780642277718
Source: Casey-Cardinia Library


Fishpond: A Botanical Life: Robert David Fitzgerald


  1. Right up my street! Thanks for bringing it to my attention, Lisa. John.


  2. wonderful review, Lisa. What a beautiful story. I didn’t know about this man and his work, and I’m glad you’ve told me about it.


  3. Wait till you see my review of Collecting Ladies, about the women who contributed so much to botanical knowledge of Australian plants in the C19th. NLA Publishing is brilliant.


  4. Nice review of an interesting book, Lisa! I love to read about the lives of people who worked as administrators or other such jobs and in their spare time did things which were fascinating, and for which they are more well known today. The 19th century was a beautiful time when such things happened. Looking forward to reading your review of ‘Collecting Ladies’. It looks fascinating from your description.


    • If you ever get a chance to visit the Enlightenment Exhibition at the British Museum, Vishy, you will see the huge variety of interests that ‘gentlemen naturalists’ got involved in during the 19th century before science was professionalised. William Smith, ‘father of geology’ is my favourite: from collecting rocks to developing a theory of the layers that underlie the earth, and part of his collection is there. (Simon Winchester wrote a bio of him, called The Map That Changed the Earth).


      • Thanks Lisa! The Enlightenment Exhibition looks wonderful! I will add it to my list of ‘Places to see’. Thanks for telling me about William Smith. He looks like a fascinating person. I will look for that Simon Winchester book on him. I didn’t know that the ‘map’ in the title was the ‘geological map’. Have you read Bill Bryson’s ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’?


  5. […] A Botanical Life: Robert David Fitzgerald […]


  6. […] A Botanical Life: Robert David Fitzgerald, by Penny Olsen […]


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