A biography of the Scott sisters

Harriet and Helena Scott were two of 19th century Australia’s most prominent natural history illustrators and possibly the first professional female illustrators in the country. They were also accomplished amateur naturalists and collectors, at a time when women were unable to pursue careers in these fields.

Scott Sisters' Diary

Matthew Stephens © Matthew Stephens

The early life in Sydney

Helena (1832-1910) and Harriet (1830-1907) were born in the Rocks area of Sydney to Harriet Calcott, daughter of an ex-convict, and Alexander Walter Scott, a wealthy man who would become known in the colony as an entomologist, grazier and entrepreneur.

An avid appreciation of nature was part of Harriet and Helena’s life from an early age and was greatly encouraged by their father and mother; ‘The scent of native flowers is always associated in my mind with the days when we were tiny little children, and Mama used to take us in the early morning for long rambles in the fragrant bush around the botanic gardens.’ (Helena to Edward Ramsay, 1862)

The Scotts were part of an influential family that mixed with scientists, civic leaders and emancipists (the extended family included their cousins David Scott Mitchell, whose extensive collection formed the Mitchell Library, and Rose Scott, famous feminist and reformer). Of particularly significance was their relationship with the Ramsay family, including a long lasting friendship with Edward Ramsay, who would later became Curator (or Director) of the Australian Museum, and whose surviving correspondences inform much about the sisters’ lives.

This social circle of the Scotts’ was a fairly liberal-minded community that tended to encourage women in their ideas, hobbies and ‘pursuits’ to a degree. However, at this time women were unable to pursue careers in science as they were excluded from universities and learned societies. In later years Harriet betrays some of her frustration at this in a letter to Edward Ramsay in 1865 ‘... great desire to distinguish myself in some way or other and if I were only a man I might do it, but as I am a woman I can’t try, for I hold it wrong for women to hunt after notoriety ... clearly I ought to have been Harry Scott instead of Hattie Scott.’

Moving to Ash Island

The family moved from Sydney to their property on Ash Island in the Hunter River near Newcastle in 1846. This proved to be a significant turning point in the girls’ lives, who were still teenagers, as the island provided a degree of freedom from the outside world and inspiration to pursue their interests in natural history. With their mother and step-sister Mary Ann doing most of the domestic work, Helena and Harriet worked with their father on researching and illustrating his book Australian Lepidoptera and their Transformations.

Working on the Lepidoptera book

AW Scott schooled his two talented daughters in the techniques of natural history illustrating and the scientific skills of observing, collecting and recording for many years, even before they moved to Ash Island. These skills as amateur naturalists were rare amongst women of this time, as women were never formally trained and few had the situation in life or opportunities of Helena and Harriet.

Their skills and knowledge were put to the best possible use. The work they did for their father included collecting and raising live specimens, observing and noting their behaviour as well as their preferred host plants:

'The female [of Acraea andromacha] being observed depositing her eggs in great numbers on a Passion flower in February, they were collected, and thus the Caterpillars were had in abundance and were most easily reared, so much so that we obtained upwards of 60 of the perfect insects per diem for several days ...' (Manuscript for Lepidoptera by A W Scott).

In addition to these tasks, the sisters catalogued and organised the many specimens they and their father caught, as well as those sent in from other contacts and collectors. They also corresponded with scientists to aid in the identification and description of some of the species.

Harriet and Helena worked on the paintings for Australian Lepidoptera and their Transformations between 1846 and 1851. They continued to revise them until around 1862, just before the first volume was published. Only 21 of the total set of 100 paintings were published in the two volumes of the book. It appears that AW Scott intended to have many more of these works published, but did not live to complete his work.

The Lepidoptera paintings

Equally talented, it is difficult to tell one sister’s work from the other. However, their combined approach makes the Lepidoptera paintings exceptional.

Their skill lay in the ability to combine accurate detail with visual appeal. Illustrations were life-sized and completed with the aid of microscopes to capture colour, texture and details of tiny body parts. The life cycle and host plants of each species were depicted and many paintings also included background landscapes.

The Scott sisters practised the landscape backgrounds for their paintings by copying the work of other colonial artists, including their father’s friend Conrad Martens, the most celebrated landscape artist in Sydney from the 1830s through to his death in 1878. Most of the backgrounds feature recognisable locations in and around Sydney and provide further information about the habitat of the insects. The landscapes were done in either black pen and ink wash or light colours to contrast with the vibrancy of the insects. Few other natural history illustrators of the time used such backgrounds in their work, making the sisters’ approach rare.

Another feature of the Lepidoptera paintings is the lifelike poses of the caterpillars compared with the more typical ‘pinned’ appearance of the butterflies and moths. The sisters often worked from living specimens, which they collected and raised. Drawing ‘from life’ as the Scott sisters did, means the insects in the paintings have vibrant and true-to-life colours. Most natural history illustrators of the time worked with long-dead, pinned specimens that were faded and lacked colour.

The publication of the Lepidoptera and other works

In 1851, the unpublished Lepidoptera book was reviewed by botanist W Swainson in the Sydney Morning Herald:

These drawings are equal to any I have ever seen by modern artists … Whether we look at the exquisite and elaborate finishing, the correct drawing, or the astonishing exactitude of the colours, often most brilliant … there is not poetic exaggeration in saying: “the force of painting can no further go”.’

The review was over a decade too early as the book did not make it to print until 1864. Only 500 copies of the first volume of the Lepidoptera were published. Each copy was individually hand coloured by specialist colourists – which was expensive and time consuming. Only the wealthy or those with wealthy patrons could afford such books.
A second volume co-edited by Helena was published by the Australian Museum from 1890 to 1898. AW Scott never saw this as he died in 1883.

The success of the Lepidoptera opened many doors for the sisters. They were awarded the rare privilege of honorary membership of the Entomological Society of NSW and received numerous requests for commissions. Over the next few decades they would produce most of the art for science publications in Sydney including Gerard Krefft’s Snakes of Australia (1869), Australian Fossil Remains (1870) and Mammals of Australia (1871), Edward Ramsay’s On the Oology of Australia (proposed but never published) and JC Cox’s Monograph of Australian Land Shells (1868). These are still used by scientists today.

Changing circumstances and commercial work

Helena married Edward Forde in 1864 and left Ash Island. The following year she accompanied him on his survey of the Darling River. While on this trip she collected specimens and material for her proposed illustrated book on the flora of the Darling. However, she and Edward contracted fever and Edward died in June 1866. On returning to Sydney, Helena gave all her material to William Woolls for his Contribution to the Flora of Australia (1867).

Harriet, Mary Ann and AW Scott left Ash Island in 1866 after Mrs Scott’s death and Scott’s bankruptcy. Helena joined them in Sydney later that year after Edward’s death. Their father’s bankruptcy forced the sisters to seek payment for their art and endure the perceived social shame for doing so.

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 ... You do not know how very, very disagreeable it is to me ... to talk about money to any gentleman but I cannot help it and if I do not do this for anybody that requires painting done, I must leave Papa and Mary and go out as a governess, and that I really should not like ...’ (Harriet to Edward Ramsay, 1866)

‘... let nobody know you are paying me for doing them for you. I don’t care what I tell you Ned ... I know I can trust you, but I should be sorry that anybody else should know, and Papa would be mad.’ (Harriet to Edward Ramsay, 1866)

Helena and Harriet also excelled in painting plants and wildflowers, themes more in line with the expected ‘hobbies’ of females, and did so throughout their lives. Helena designed the wildflower images that appeared on the first Australian-themed Christmas cards, marketed by the Sydney publishers Turner and Henderson in 1879. In the following year Harriet designed a similar set of twelve. Harriet also drew botanical illustrations for the Railway Guide to New South Wales first, second and third editions published in 1879, 1884 and 1886.

The sisters continued to draw and paint commercially throughout their lives, although Harriet did much less work after her marriage to Dr Cosby William Morgan in 1882, becoming step-mother to his four daughters. Helena was still actively seeking work in her 70s.

Harriet died in Granville in 1907 and Helena in Harris Park in 1910. Neither left any descendants.

 


Fran Dorey , Exhibition Project Coordinator
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