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This post is for Pauline, who knows a lot about banksias and who solved a few puzzles for me


This post was inspired by leafing through Artonview and stumbling across one of Margaret Preston’s banksia prints. I saw this as an invitation to showcase some of my favourite botanical artists and one of my favourite plants. The post is also an expansion of Behind Bengello which included photos of the many faces of banksias, and an account of the role of the Big Bad Banksiamen in Snugglepot and Cuddlepie.

First an introduction to the plant. There are more than 70 species of banksia (170 if you include the recent taxonomic change that incorporates dryandras) and all except one are unique to Australia. They were named by Carl Linnaeus Jnr to honour Joseph Banks who was a great collector of Australian plants at the beginning of white invasion. I find them fascinating because each phase is spectacular, different, and photogenic, from budding, to flowers, to cones, to decomposition. For a diagram of their intricacies have a look at http://www.cpbr.gov.au/banksia/banksia-serrata-illust.pdf, and for a lovely collection of photos taken by a blogging friend see here.

They drip with nectar which attracts all sorts of creatures, including honeyeaters, pygmy possums, gliders, antechinuses, bats, stingless bees and a host of invertebrates, many of whom pay for their meal by taking on the role of pollinators. On the ground around a big banksia there’s usually a litter of bits and pieces: cockatoos who break off the “cones” for both seeds and insect larvae are messy eaters. For Aboriginal people, the flowers of wad-ang-gari (heath banksia) soaked in water produced a sweet, high energy drink.

Fire, usually billed as the great Australian destroyer, is in fact necessary to banksias because it encourages the germination of banksia seed. Even species that don’t depend on fire survive because they have tough bark, or lignotubers that resprout.

Given my current interest in geology, I can’t go on without mentioning the antiquity of banksias. Fossils found in the Kennedy Ranges in Western Australia identified as Banksias show that they have been around in something like their modern form for 40-50 million years. During this time Australia has drifted north from a position near Antarctica and undergone major climatic changes.


Now for a few of the artists who have scrutinised and portrayed the banksia, beautifully combining art and science.


Ferdinand Bauer 1760-1820

Source: An exquisite eye: the Australian flora and fauna drawings 1801-1820 of Ferdinand Bauer published by the Historic Houses Trust of NSW 1997

Bauer botanised in Australia, and with Australian plants back in England, between 1801 and 1820. He travelled widely, circumnavigating the continent with Matthew Flinders, and made meticulous sketches, a thousand of them, life size, with detailed colour annotations, using a code from 1-999, which he referred to when he coloured them later at leisure, with only very few “mistakes”. He is honoured for his artistry and also for extraordinary botanical accuracy, including the portrayal of seeds, stamens, pollen grains and root structures.



Ida McComish (1885-1978)

Source: Women of flowers: Botanical art in Australia from the 1830s to the 1960s Leonie Norton published by the National Library of Australia 2009

Ida and her botanist partner travelled to all sorts of exotic places with backpacks, stout walking shoes and camping gear: Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, Tahiti, Raratonga, Lord Howe and Norfolk Islands. When they moved to Sydney, the thick bushland of Wahroonga offered many subject-plants. Her eight plant albums are in the National Library of Australia: with handmade covers of Norfolk Island pine varnished with shellac and methylated spirits, they contain preserved botanical specimens, accompanied by scientific descriptions.

A theme is beginning to emerge: a botanist gets to be an adventurer and traveller too.



Ellis Rowan (1848-1925)


Women of flowers: Botanical art in Australia from the 1830s to the 1960s Leonie Norton published by the National Library of Australia 2009

Australian dictionary of biography



My enduring image of Ellis Rowan is of a petite woman in the jungles of New Guinea, wearing a long white dress and a large white picture hat, sitting in a chair in her campsite as locals bring her specimens to paint. And yes, she did dress like that even there.

During her adventures all over the world she recorded more than 3000 plants using mainly gouache on grey-coloured paper because it dried more quickly than watercolour and allowed her to paint in the field. The field was vast: Australia, the highlands of New Guinea, the Himalayas, the Caribbean, the West Indies, India and the United States. Her ambition was not small either: she wanted to find and paint every wildflower species on the Australian continent.

In 1888 at Melbourne’s Centennial International Exhibition she won a prize and the envy of artists (male) who thought painting flowers wasn’t real painting. Not much had changed by 1923. After a lot of arguing back and forth, the Australian government bought 947 of her paintings for £500 in response to pressure from women’s groups, although critics objected strenuously to the purchase of ‘vulgar art’.

I have spent a lovely morning in the National Library of Australia with portfolios of her original paintings, examining them minutely wearing white gloves and making pencil notes, and they are indeed both art and botany.


Margaret Preston (1875-1963)

Source: http://www.margaretpreston.info/life-work/

Margaret Preston was an Australian artist and printmaker, who travelled widely and was in the vanguard of Australian modernist art, mainly through her woodcuts and monotypes. She struck it lucky in her husband, who not only provided enough money for her to travel and experiment in her art, but also seemed to regard it as “a national duty to keep his beloved Margaret happy and artistically productive.” Although she wasn’t a botanical artist in the sense that my other artists were, flowers were one of her main subjects. She too travelled: to New Caledonia, the New Hebrides, South East Asia, China, North Queensland, Ceylon, Africa and India. The art gallery of NSW offers an interesting timeline of her life and her views on art.



Margaret Olley

Margaret Olley was not strictly speaking a botanical artist either: she painted stunning still lifes mainly of flowers and fruit.


Leonie Norton

Source: Women of flowers: Botanical art in Australia from the 1830s to the 1960s Leonie Norton published by the National Library of Australia 2009


Leonie Norton earns a place in this brief account of botanical artists because she was responsible for putting together Women of flowers which values the art and botanical knowledge of women, and also because of her own position as a botanical artist and botanical art educator.


Celia Rosser (1930- )


http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/celia-rosser–aka-the-banksia-lady–and-her-life-botanic-20150529-ghcaod.html (Photos from this article)





Celia Rosser is a fitting climax to this selective narrative of botanical art. As Monash University’s botanical artist, she took on the task of illustrating every banksia, including a new one named for her. Over twenty five years she created a three-volume “florilegium in the tradition of the 18th century”, 76 life-size watercolour paintings, taking about three months to complete each one. (This was before the species took in Dryandra). She wanted to collect specimens as well as illustrate them, and so she too travelled wide and rough, “lugging polystyrene bins and ice bricks … and braving hot north winds, flies and snakes” all over Australia.


Celia Rosser’s field sketches



The artists I’ve featured all achieve “a marriage of art and botany” and an intimacy with their subject-plants. Their lives were geographically expanded as they headed off to remote and exotic destinations in search of plants to paint, and they were all obsessed with doing this, as one is obsessed with a passion. As with my history of art through cows, I’m sure I’ve missed some banksia painters. Please tell me if I have, so I can add them to my pantheon.


Bits and pieces

Banksias have featured on an Australian postage stamp.



If this post gives you a taste for banksias, scan their variety of shape, colour and habit here, remembering that nurserymen can’t leave nature alone.


The National Library of Australia has published Little book of banksias, a mix of paintings and poems. If you go to the link you can see three double page spreads.


If you want to pursue Australian botanical artists, Mr/s Wiki can provide you with a list. I’m not even going to look at it right now. I need to get this post out of my draft box!