The Artist and the Botanical Collector

Botanical publishing has never lacked vision, passion and optimism. Funding, however, seems to have always been a problem (no surprises here, of course).

First, there was Sir Joseph Banks’s extravagant Florilegium, documenting over 700 of the specimens he and Daniel Solander collected on their journey on the Endeavour in the late 1700s. Banks never managed to see it printed, and donated many of the plates to the British Museum. 100 copies were finally printed in 34 parts in the 1980s. It has since become a highly valuable collector’s item.

Then came Robert John Thornton’s Temple of Flora. He planned over 70 gorgeous colour plates featuring lavishly produced botanical illustrations, in often weird and wonderful settings. It was to be the final instalment of his work: The New illustration of The Sexual System of Carolus von Linnaeus. The public weren’t interested. Not even a lottery could raise the funds necessary to get the project off the ground and Thornton died destitute and heart broken. Now, of course, like Banks’s failed publication, plates from The Temple of Flora are also extremely valuable.

Boronia serrulata and Actinotus helianthi, watercolour by Gertrude Lovegrove, c1890.  Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums.  

And now, to a smaller, yet no less ambitious project –  The Wildflowers of New South Wales, an enterprise by botanical collector William Bäuerlen and amateur artist Gertrude Lovegrove, the first edition printed in 1891.

Bäuerlen had my dream job. He was a botanical collector and spent most of his working life roaming around Australia collecting plants.

He was employed by Baron Ferdinand von Mueller, Director of the Botanical Gardens in Melbourne, and later Joseph Maiden, curator of the Technological Museum in Sydney.  After spending time in the Shoalhaven area of NSW he got to know the family of a young artist called Gertrude Lovegrove.

It’s not clear how they came to collaborate, but by may 1890 they had prepared 30 plates for printing. The illustrations and text were sent to Edinburgh and a limited edition loose leaf folio was published by Angus & Robinson in 1891. It was part one of an intended 25 parts – an ambitious project of a scale never before seen in NSW.

By now, you’re probably guessing the end of the story. The pair canvassed for supporters, creating a prospectus reading: “No work has hithero been published illustrating the Flora of New South Wales in a manner worthy of the subject, and the authors of this work confidently ask the public to assist them in their attempt to supply the deficiency…”

The cost to subscribers was five shillings per part, which equates to around $35 today. There was not enough interest so the pair called it a day.

Following their failed publishing enterprise Lovegrove got married and moved to Marrickville.  Bäuerlen also got married and continued collecting. His marriage didn’t last, and he retired in 1905, moving to lodgings in Redfern, Sydney. Like Thornton, he ended up with little money and recognition and died alone in hospital in 1917.

And of course, being a woman, Lovegrove received even less glory. Bäuerlen, at least had a few plants named after him like Correa bauerlenii and Eucalyptus bauerlenii.

All is not lost though. A few years ago a rare copy of The Wildflowers of New South Wales was found at Meroogal, a Sydney Living Museums property at Nowra. Images from the book, as well as Gertrude Lovegrove’s original watercolour paintings are currently being exhibited at the Museum of Sydney, as part of a botanical extravaganza compiling of two exhibitions: Florilegium: Sydney’s Painted Garden and The Artist & the Botanical Collector.

And so it goes, the same story… No money, no glory, till you’re dead. And even then, only if you’re a man. I wonder if its time for this tale to evolve? Whilst you’re pondering this question, I suggest getting down to the Museum of Sydney and seeing both exhibitions. They’re exquisite.

Blandfordia grandiflora, watercolour by Gertrude Lovegrove, c1890. Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums

Exhibition Details

Florilegium: Sydney’s Painted Garden
This exhibition showcases a remarkable collection of contemporary botanical paintings that illustrate some of the most significant plants in the history of the living collections of the Royal Botanic Garden & Domain Trust.

The exhibition celebrates a renaissance in botanic art with over 80 exquisite paintings from more than 60 international and Australian artists. Visitors will be able to view up close the painstaking detail of familiar indigenous Australian plants and common garden flowers


Florilegium: Sydney’s Painted Garden
30 July to 30 October 2016

The Artist & the Botanical Collector
13 August to 20 November 2016

Museum of Sydney, Cnr Bridge and Phillip streets, Sydney

Grevillea kennedyana and Marsilea quadrifolia, watercolour by Gertrude Lovegrove, c1890.  Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums.  
Crinum flaccidum, watercolour by Gertrude Lovegrove, c1890. Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums.