If only her letters had survived! What might have been learned about Margaret’s life during the Great War? (p.215)
What indeed… In rescuing the story of the botanical artist Margaret Flockton (1861-1953), Louise Wilson has done a sterling job of celebrating Flockton’s remarkable achievements, but the woman herself remains a shadow. A self-effacing and very private personality, she can be known only for her legacy, and we have to be satisfied with that.
It is an extraordinary legacy. Summarised on the website of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney, Margaret Flockton’s career as Australia’s first and most celebrated professional botanical artist was full of firsts. Although she had a great champion in J.H. (Joseph Henry) Maiden, Director of the RBG (1859–1925), she worked in an era when women’s roles were circumscribed, but she nevertheless became professionally qualified and forged a career and financial independence.
Born in England when women were subjected to legislation that limited their financial independence, Margaret was inspired in that quest for financial independence by the experience of her grandmother Maria and the misfortunes of her improvident father. An heiress, Maria was made bankrupt by her husband, his business partner and her solicitor. Margaret’s father, expecting an inheritance that never came, took up life as an artist, but he was not successful. The family, like so many, migrated to Australia in search of better opportunities…
Opportunities came to Margaret because she had insisted on completing her education before leaving England three years after her sisters. Although it is not known how she supported herself in London, she attended various training schools in art, and gained entry to the National Art Training School in South Kensington. She was lucky in this because its superintendent Henry Cole was alert to the predicament of the intelligent middle-class lady and ‘the difficult problem of woman’s work. The art school enabled women to become qualified, not just as teachers of art, but in Margaret’s case for other employment. It was her professional qualifications that made the difference at the beginning of her career in fine art, and in Sydney as a commercial artist and as a botanical artist of Australian plants; at the end of her career it was her professional expertise that distinguished her work from her great rival Ellis Rowan, also a wildflower artist.
The biographer cites from The West Australian in 1924, a summary of the issue:
“There are two distinct forms of wild flower painting – the strictly botanical, and the ordinary flower ‘study’. In the former, artistic effects in composition and light and shade values are subordinate to accuracy of detail and the perfect delineation of a fully expanded flower, an unopened bud, leaf, and stalk, the latter often depicted in sections for convenience on a small-sized sheet of paper with the lowest showing the root formation. The greatest Australian exponent of this class of flower painting is Miss Margaret Flockton, of the New South Wales Government Botanist’s staff, and illustrator of many technical botanical publications. Yet in addition to what may be termed her ‘diagrammatic’ skill, Miss Flockton’s ordinary flower paintings are full of ‘feeling’, and her beautiful study, entitled ‘Waratah,’ in the Sydney Art Gallery is a perfect example of the combination of artistic effect with botanical accuracy.’ (p.201)
The exquisite works of Ellis Rowan, championed by the botanist Sarah Hynes (who was sacked from the RBG for ‘insubordination’) and who became the celebrity artist whose award-winning work was collected by the National Library of Australia and the Queensland Museum, are however, of a different order. Rowan did not identify the plants as a professional botanical artist should. The article in The West Australian, having eulogised her work, goes on to say:
“Unidentified flower paintings, however beautiful they may be, are of no scientific value to the systematic botanist… The establishment of a national collection of such paintings as Mrs Rowan’s, were they correctly named, would be of immense value to both professional and amateur botanists.” (p.201)
But the Commonwealth government succumbed to the campaign and paid a great deal of money for the Rowan collection anyway…
It was Margaret Flockton’s fate, like that of so many uncelebrated public servants, to leave a significant legacy of work unrecognised by all but a few, and it was not until 2003 (!) that the RBG got round to investigating her role in its collection of botanical art. If her work is on display, *sigh* the website doesn’t tell us so, and if I have any readers in Sydney, I’d appreciate it if someone who visits the RBG could let me know if they do.
Prior to joining the RBG (as an underpaid ‘temporary’ who worked there till her retirement, pay rises granted only grudgingly as a result of J.H. Maiden’s constant badgering about it), Margaret Flockton also worked commercially, producing some exquisite postcards and also posters for a tobacco company. These works are now collectors’ items and impossible to find online but (as with all Wakefield Press publications of this type) the book is profusely illustrated with reproductions on high quality paper and the wildflower lithos series are full size on the page so that you can linger over them as I did. Flockton’s paintings – of still life and portraits – are also mostly in private hands so we must hope that one day there will be a retrospective where we can see them full size.
But the one that interests me most is ‘The Fortune Teller’, a watercolour painted in 1900. (See here). It’s a full length portrait of a young woman, wearing a plain shawl and drab dress, but with a flower in her hair and playing cards in her hands and a coy expression on her face. It is a striking contrast to the chaste professionalism of the botanical paintings, and hints not at some spurious hidden love life, but at a liveliness of character or personality that remains elusive to the end, despite Louise Wilson’s best efforts.
Author: Louise Wilson
Title: Margaret Flockton, a fragrant memory
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2016
Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press