Drawing the Flowered Amazon
Margaret Mee was an artist I would like to have met.
Beyond her extraordinary botanical illustration work, she was surely the wittiest and most resolute English lady to hang around the Brazilian Amazon after 1956, for more than 30 years. She was the only English lady to do that then, actually, which per se says a great deal about her.
What leads a 47-year-old woman, established in Brazil because of her family and an art teacher at a British school there, to travel fifteen times to the depths of the unexplored rainforest? Undoubtedly a fair share of eccentricity, but mostly her enrapture with plants and complete devotion to understand and share them with the world.
Margaret was a true environmentalist and led a fierce battle against the deforestation and large-scale mining of the Amazon basin and rainforest. As the painting work evolves through the repeated expeditions, her drawings mutate to more and more incorporate the natural habitat of the featured plant species, raising a subliminal awareness for the vanishing environment where they are embedded and the importance of ecological interdependence.
The gouache technique in the paintings is exquisite and she insisted on drawing from life. She would make on-site sketches and then take living collections home, sometimes waiting months until a flower would bloom, just to ensure proper identification of the plant.
The life and work of Margaret Mee was recently the subject of a nicely written and produced documentary by Brazilian director Malu de Marino (trailer). It features many that crossed Margaret’s life, including some of her students that are now well-established botanical artists, and uses as a baseline the story of Margaret’s last expedition to fulfill the long-held ambition of depicting the Moonflower – a night blooming cactus periodically submerged by the river, whose fragrant flowers are fully open only for a few hours.
I was delighted to watch this strikingly beautiful movie at the Environmental Film Festival. And I’m glad that it is now being debuted in Brazilian theaters, widespread across different cities (hurry Brazilian readers out there, it’s during this week only!).
Besides the remarkable legacy of drawings and environmental awareness that Margaret Mee left, I dare to say that arguably the greatest endowment is the path she set for followers in botanical illustration. The Margaret Mee Fellowship Program at Kew Gardens sponsored the studies of budding Brazilian artists from 1989 through 2006 and established the still growing practice in the scientific-artistic field in the country.
Some jaw-dropping books immortalize her work (like this, this and this) and her diaries have been published as well. This online coverage of her life and work done by Tony Morrison, Margaret’s editor for a number of years, includes many original video excerpts and photos of Margaret Mee.
The saddest irony is that the intrepid lady died at the age of 79 in a car accident outside of London, proving how urban landscape can be more life-threatening than the danger-ridden tropical forests of the Amazon that she visited so many times.
- Fig. 1 – orchid Rudolfiella aurantiaca (1971), collection: Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew
- Fig. 2 – bromeliad Aechmea rodriguesiana (1977), collection: Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew
Fig. 2a – field sketches for the painting above. From the diary of Margaret Mee: “I caught sight of a large bromeliad… The flowers were dry and the fruit already forming. As this was a species I had never seen before, I decided to return to the area again in the flowering season. About six months later, I found Aechnea rodriguesiana again – this time in full flower, the rose pink bracts enclosing pure white florets.”
Fig. 3- Smelling the Moonflower (Selenicereus wittii) at midnight (1988, photo ©Tony Morrison)
Fig. 4- Margaret Mee’s painting of the Moonflower (1988)