Thursday, April 09, 2009

Botanical Artists: Margaret Mee

Margaret Mee at home in Brazil in 1988 prior to her final expedition to the Amazon
Photograph copyright Tony Morrison
I think Margaret Mee was the first female botanical artist I ever came across. I rather suspect the same might be said for others judging by the queries I get from time to time about whether I know of any good websites about her which display her work.

It was a long job finding all the websites which provide helpful information. Researching them has unearthed an an incentive for all those looking for a 'second wind' for their careers. It turns out that Mee only became a botanical artist in her forties and actually became famous only as she got older still and more people learned about her botanical art.

I've hunted down all the websites I can find which provide an insight into her life, her work and her art but sad to say it's much less than I expected to find. I've now included links to all of these in Margaret Mee - Resources for Botanical Art Lovers. [Update: See About Margaret Mee - on my new website about Botanical Art and Artists]

Lecythidacea Gustavia pulchra
on the cover of 'Margaret Mee's Amazon

An overview of Margaret Mee

Margaret Mee was a petite English lady and botanical artist who produced hundreds of botanical paintings as a result of her expeditions around Brazil, along the River Amazon and in the Amazon rainforest. A number of her paintings were donated to the library at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. She is also well known for support of conservation. Besides her paintings, one of her lasting and hugely important contributions to conservation is that she alerted people to the exploitation and destruction of the Amazon rain forest.

Margaret Mee was born (in 1909) and brought up in Buckinghamshire - and was known to her family and friends as Peggy. The early part of her life with her first husband was spent as a political activist and she worked for a number of causes involving the underprivileged and the fight against fascism.

She trained as an artist by attending various of the London Art Schools and earned a National Diploma in Painting and Design. Following her marriage to her second husband Greville Mee she moved to live in Brazil where she became a botanical artist.

Margaret Mee in Brazil

She arrived in Brazil in 1951 age 42 and initially taught art at a British school in São Paulo. She and her husband began to explore the country on various expeditions and she decided to start painting plant portraits. She began to establish her reputation as a botanical artist with her first exhibition of 25 paintings was in Brazil in 1958 and then another exhibition in London in 1960 where the won the RHS Grenfell Gold Medal. Her work was subsequently acclaimed internationally by botanists and art critics alike.

Shortly after her first exhibition she was became a botanical illustrator at the Instituto de Botânica de São Paulo where she remained employed until 1965. Her first expedition to the Amazon was in 1956 and she continued to produce paintings from the rain forest over a period of 32 years

Subject matter
She was commissioned to illustrate the Flora Brasilica which she worked on after leaving the Insitute. This was very ambitious project to catalogue and illustrate the plants of Brasil and involved working expeditions to various parts of Brazil.

In Brazil she specialised in painting orchids and bromeliads. It's notable that a number of the species she painted had not been recorded before. She also had a long held ambition to illustrate a Moonflower (a night-blooming cactus) - and was ultimately successful in her quest.

Margaret Mee's approach to painting

Mee's work initially reminded me of Marian North's work insofar as in some of her paintings her subject matter is not isolated from the painting. However she also produced more classical approaches to botanical art as well.

She sketched in pencils and then used watercolour and gouache for her 400+ paintings.

Where is her work now?

Much of her work recording the flora of Brazil quite rightly is now lodged in the archives of the Instituto de Botânica São Paulo in Brazil. One source suggested that this work was now recorded in Margaret Mee 1909-88 but I've been unable to track this down. The Kew website suggests that the publication of the complete works of Margaret Mee still requires funding.

The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew holds some paintings.

Margaret Mee's Amazon - Diaries of an Artist Explorer (cover above right) was out of print for a long while but it's now possible to get hold of copies of a 2004 edition. This book contains her detailed diaries kept between 1956 and 1988 plus several maps whch show the routes of her journeys and work sites quite precisely.

The Margaret Mee Fellowship Programme

Margaret Mee died as a result of a car crash in 1988.

The Margaret Mee Fellowship Programme has been set up to honour her memory. Every year a student artist from Brazil travels to London to train as a botanical artist at Kew Gardens



Robyn Sinclair said...

Now that's the sort of story I like - Old Lady Makes Good! Margaret looks like she'd have been a lot of fun too. What I've seen of her work - only in reproduction - is lovely. Have you bought the diary, Katherine? It sounds very interesting. I'll look forward to following up your links. Many thanks.

Julie Oakley said...

Very interesting. It's very impressive that she started her magnus opus at the age of 42.
The word verification is relarkew. Sounds as though it relates to the post

Charlene Brown said...

Yes! Painting is one of the few activities where it's never too late to start -- and it's one of even fewer pursuits where you might actually get better at it over time. Achieving brilliance like Margaret Mee's is unlikely, but improvement is entirely possible, at a time in life when you're getting worse at almost everything else.

r garriott said...

Thank you, this is fascinating!

Adam Cope said...

Sounds like a remarkable & diligent lady.

There, you see, another example of 'Artists & Ecology' (thread over on my blog). One tends to fall in love with what one paints & thus can poorly accept that it might be mistreated/changed/destroyed/revised.

You hear about Hockney's hornbeam clump under threat?

Jenni said...

Reading your article sent me rushing to my bookshelves. I bought "In Search of Flowers of the Amazon Forests" in 1988, long before I was interested in painting myself. Having now dabbled in botanic drawing, I'm amazed at her output. I'm going to sit down for a good browse this evening. I've just been given a selection of artists watercolours ( as recommended in the Botanical Illustration Course with the Eden Project). I find wc a very, very difficult medium, but feel inspired by some of the beautiful sketches I have just been looking at in MM's book.
Incidentally, next to her book, I found The Frampton Flora by Richard Maybe, a fascinating book of 300 Victorian wild flower paintings by 4 sisters and their 3 aunts from the Gloucester countryside.

Jenni said...

I forgot to say that I was lucky enough to see an exhibition of her paintings "The Amazon Collection" at Kew in 2001. I'd love to see it again, especially as I am now involved in botanic art.

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