19 Nov 2023

Dr Rebecca Rice: our early colonial women botanical artists recovered

From Culture 101, 12:00 am on 19 November 2023
Rebecca Rice

Rebecca Rice Photo: supplied

Plant blindness is a term recently coined for our tendency as humans to disregard the names, properties and characteristics of the flora around us, despite how entwined our past, present and futures are with the natural world.

A lavish new hardback from Te Papa Press, Flora: Celebrating our botanical world attempts to cure us of this affliction. It brings together examples of flora from our national collection, selected by curators across the fields of art, design, history, photography, fashion and, naturally, botany.

One of these curators is Dr Rebecca Rice, Curator in Historical New Zealand Art. Rice has been rethinking Aotearoa New Zealand’s colonial visual culture, and her current research focuses on nineteenth-century female botanical artists, who arguably have not had the attention they deserve. 

Working between the fields of art and science, Rice says their work often sought to interest a wider public in the burgeoning field of botany, and highlight the diversity of flowers endemic to this country. 

Rice brings many interesting artists to new light.

New Zealand's first resident botanical artist was Martha King, commissioned by the Wellington Horticultural and Botanical Society in 1842 and Emily Harris is considered one of New Zealand's first professional women painters, chiefly painting native plants and flowers in watercolour and exhibiting both here and overseas. 

Sarah Featon (nee Porter, 1848–1927), England/Aotearoa New Zealand

A watercolour of kohekohe by Sarah Featon from 1885. Photo: Te Papa Press

Georgina Hetley is best remembered for her book The native flowers of New Zealand, published in the 1880s in both England and France. This was intended to be a comprehensive guide to New Zealand flora, following Dr Walter Buller's book on birds, and for the project she travelled around New Zealand collecting specimens. 

Sarah Featon’s book The Art Album of New Zealand Flora in 1888 set out further to debunk the myth there were no flowers in New Zealand, with watercolours of 134 flowering plants. It was the first book with fully-coloured art to be printed in New Zealand. 

These are just some of the artists Rebecca Rice draws attention to. They feature in the book Flora and, many also in a new exhibition at Te Papa Arranging Nature, on until mid 2024.  

Plagianthus lyallii, Plate 34. From the English edition (1888), London
Georgina Hetley

Whauwhau, or mountain lacebark from Georgina Hetley's The Native Flowers of New Zealand, 1888. Photo: Te Papa Press