The Science and Splendor of Australian Butterflies: How Two 19th-Century Teenage Sisters’ Forgotten Paintings Sparked a Triumph of Modern Conservation
A bittersweet story of staggering talent, obsessive curiosity, countercultural courage, and posthumous redemption.
By Maria Popova
A century after the self-taught German naturalist and artist Maria Merian laid the foundations of modern entomology with her stunning pictorial studies of butterflies in Surinam and a century before Vladimir Nabokov applied his glorious intellectual promiscuity to advancing the field, the Australian sisters Harriet and Helena Scott unleashed their immense talent and curiosity on the natural history of butterflies and moths. A century after their death, their stunning, scrumptious paintings would furnish one of the most heartening conservation triumphs in history.
Daughters of the Bombay-born Australian entomologist Alexander Walker Scott, Helena and Harriet were barely out of childhood when they started harmonizing their father’s scientific studies with their shared artistic gift. When the girls were in their teens, the family moved from Sydney to Ash Island — an isolated patch of native wilderness in the middle of Hunter River — where they filled their days and their minds with activities reserved for the era’s boys. The sisters spent twenty years adventuring into nature — probably wearing pants, certainly climbing trees — and documenting their astonishment, their awed curiosity, in field notebooks and collecting boxes and elaborate paintings. They lived on the timescale of the insects they studied, staying up at night to observe and illustrate in real time the metamorphoses unfolding in the span of hour, minutes, in creatures with life-cycles of days — transformations so subtle that the sisters often used the single hair of a paintbrush to render the delicate details.
A generation before Ernst Haeckel coined the term ecology and a century before Rachel Carson made it a household word, the Scott sisters spent innumerable hours in the wilderness, studying the plants that sustained the insects, seeking to understand and document the intricate relationships of life. At a time when most natural history illustration depicted animals in black and white, islanded on the page as specimens extracted from their natural context and splayed for the human viewer’s eye, they chose to honor the vibrant living creatures within the web of life.
Paper, imported from England, was so precious that they used each sheet twice — painting on the front, writing on the back, in a tiny script that could compress the maximum amount of information, the greatest volume of coded curiosity, into the finite physical space. They organized and catalogued their father’s specimens, watched the glasswing, Acraea andromacha, lay her innumerable eggs inside the passionflower, watched the caterpillar turn pupa turn butterfly, and rendered what they saw in consummate detail.
In an era when scientific illustrators were often uncredited in the works they illustrated, an era when hardly any women were published authors and of the few who were, most published under initials or male pseudonyms, Alexander Walker Scott made the bold and loving decision to print his daughters’ names in the book’s title itself, honoring them as collaborators. After a thirteen-year delay due to its exceedingly costly production bent on preserving the vibrancy and integrity of the original art, the two-volume Australian Lepidoptera and their transformations, drawn from the life by Harriet and Helena Scott was published in 1864.
Although they could only afford to print a fraction of the 100 artworks Harriet and Helena, now in their early thirties, had painted as teenagers between 1846 and 1851, the book just about bankrupted the Scotts without garnering the recognition they had hoped for. Soon after its publication, their mother died of a heart attack — a devastation to the young women who shared a close bond with her and whose grief was compounded by the sudden loss of the freedom their mother’s domestic care had afforded them to pursue their artistic-scientific career. The family was forced to sell Ash Island and move into humbler dwellings back in Sydney. Harriet wrote to a friend at the Australian Museum of natural history:
In a week or so we shall leave this place poorer than we ever were in our lives, and I am and shall be until poor Papa gets something to do, working to gain a livelihood for us three. We give up every article that belongs to us and if I can take my drawing materials I shall think myself fortunate. With these I hope to be able to make enough to live in a very small way for a time.
Shortly after the migration, Harriet and Helena were thrust into even deeper dispossession and grief — their father died. Forced to lean on their talent not along their passions but against their survival, they began taking commissions decorating wedding photographs with drawings of wildlife and plants, they painted commercial dinner plate sets, they made botanical illustrations for railway guides, they illustrated the first holiday cards featuring native Australian wildflowers. Scholars consider them Australia’s first paid female artists.
Even so, the income was not enough for the sisters to subsist on. They made the difficult decision to sell their life’s work to the Australian Museum, of which their father had been a trustee. The museum, where the scrumptious Scott collection now lives among the country-continent’s largest and oldest natural history and rare books archive, bought it for £200, or around £25,000 today.
For a century, the Scott sisters’ work lay brown-papered in the underbelly of the museum, until curator Marion Ord rediscovered it with a gasp of awe and set about bringing it back to life in a book celebrating the museum’s bicentenary — a book on which conservationists began leaning to restore and rewild Ash Island, which industrial farming had left razed of trees and bereft of insects in the twentieth century.
A turning point for the conservation effort was the discovery of a crucial document among the Scott sisters’ papers: Helena’s full list of the plants growing on Ash Island in 1862 — a function of the sisters’ understanding of ecology before the term existed. More than 240 species, ranging from trees to ferns to fungi, were each meticulously catalogued as a complete phylogenetic listing.
A century after Harriet and Helena Scott returned their borrowed atoms to the web of life, more than 250,000 native trees have been replanted on their beloved Ash Island with the help of hundreds of volunteers, restoring the flood-plane rainforest of their childhood. Ash Island is now a national park.
Australian Museum curator, historian, and archivist Vanessa Finney tells the Scott sisters’ previously untold story in the consummately illustrated Transformations (public library). Complement it with Peter Rabbit creator Beatrix Potter’s groundbreaking studies and illustrations of mushrooms, which mycologists still use to identify species, trailblazing 18th-century artist Sarah Stone’s natural history paintings of exotic, endangered, and extinct species, some of them native to Australia, and the remarkable story of her young contemporary Elizabeth Blackwell, who taught herself botanical illustration and created the world’s first illustrated encyclopedia of medicinal plants to save her husband from debtor’s prison.
Published July 30, 2020