"In 1846, Harriet and Helena [Scott], then aged 16 and 14, moved from Sydney to the isolated Ash Island in the Hunter River estuary* [near Newscastle, NSW] with their mother, Harriet Calcott, and father, entomologist and entrepreneur Alexander Walker Scott.
There, surrounded by unspoilt native vegetation and under the inspiring tutelage of their artistic father, their shared fascination with the natural world grew. For almost 20 years, the sisters lived and worked on the island, faithfully recording its flora and fauna, especially the butterflies and moths. [..] These skills as amateur naturalists were rare amongst women of this time, as women were never formally trained and few had the situation in life or opportunities of [the Scott sister].
Harriet and Helena worked on the paintings for 'Australian Lepidoptera and their Transformations' between 1846 and 1851. They continued to revise them until around 1862, just before the first volume was published. [..] Their skill lay in the ability to combine accurate detail with visual appeal. Illustrations were life-sized and completed with the aid of microscopes to capture colour, texture and details of tiny body parts. The life cycle and host plants of each species were depicted and many paintings also included background landscapes. [..]
In 1851, the unpublished Lepidoptera book was reviewed by botanist W Swainson in the Sydney Morning Herald:
‘These drawings are equal to any I have ever seen by modern artists … Whether we look at the exquisite and elaborate finishing, the correct drawing, or the astonishing exactitude of the colours, often most brilliant … there is not poetic exaggeration in saying: “the force of painting can no further go”.’
The review was over a decade too early as the book did not make it to print until 1864. Only 500 copies of the first volume of the Lepidoptera were published. Each copy was individually hand coloured by specialist colourists – which was expensive and time consuming. Only the wealthy or those with wealthy patrons could afford such books. A second volume co-edited by Helena was published by the Australian Museum from 1890 to 1898. AW Scott never saw this as he died in 1883."
[This commentary was excerpted from the Australian Museum website, linked below]
'Australian Lepidoptera and their Transformations' (1864-1898) and the original watercolour paintings and notebooks of Harriet and Helena Scott and associated material are the subject of a current exhibition (until the end of November 2011) at the Australian Museum in Sydney. They have a fairly extensive series of images and essays (and more!) available online:
Beauty from Nature: art of the Scott Sisters.
All the images above are courtesy of the University of Newcastle Flickr set.
I was first alerted to this series and exhibition via the wonderful University of Newcastle Cultural Collections Blog [and here]. I've been a fan of their site for the last couple of years.
The Australian Museum's copies of the two volumes of 'Australian Lepidoptera and their Transformations' have been digitised and uploaded recently to the newly minted Australian affiliate of the Biodiversity Heritage Library. Or they can be accessed from the main BHL site.
The cover image from Volume 2 (BHL), with its botanical typography, is seen below. It may be a matter of taste, but there is variation in quality between the Flickr images, the BHL books and the images seen on the Australian Museum site; I thought the Flickr images were generally of superior quality. I'll have to get along to the exhibition in person in the next couple of weeks to get the best view (hopefully!) of the work.
Previously: science; fauna; Australia.