Sisters Helena and Harriet Scott documented the butterflies and botany of NSW in exquisite detail, but their path was not without struggle.

Scott Sisters illustrations
Illustrations of butterflies, moths, caterpillars and plants by Harriet and Helena Scott. Photographer: Stuart Humphreys. © Australian Museum Image: Stuart Humphreys
© Australian Museum

By 1851 the Scott family knew they were working on a very special project. Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, prominent natural historian William Swainson declared the first draft of their new book, Australian Lepidoptera and Their Transformations, without peer as both science and art:

'A national work [of] great and lasting benefit to science…these drawings are the equal to any I have seen by modern artists…The force of painting can go no further.'

Sadly, it was to be a 50-year labour of love by Alexander Walker Scott and his two remarkable daughters, Harriet and Helena, before they finally had the satisfaction of seeing their finished book in print.

The project began in the 1830s when AW Scott, newly arrived in the colony of New South Wales, began a series of drawings and notebooks with detailed descriptions of the butterflies and moths (order Lepidoptera) that he was collecting in the Sydney area. By the 1840s Scott, still a keen naturalist, was an established entrepreneur, a civic and scientific leader and a father. The project was taking shape as a book to describe and illustrate the complete Australian Lepidoptera. Scott planned a 150-page large-format book to accommodate full-colour, life-size illustrations of almost 70 species, many of which would be described for the first time.

The whole family was involved. Stepdaughters Frances and Mary began to draw and add their observations to Scott’s notebooks. Meanwhile, the girls’ mother, Harriet Calcott, had started educating her youngest daughters, Harriet and Helena, not just in the usual feminine arts of sketching and drawing, but also in the art and science of observation. As Helena later recalled:

'The scent of native flowers is always associated in my mind with the days when we were tiny children, and Mama used to take us in the early morning for long rambles in the fragrant bush around the Botanic Gardens.'

Scott sister diary
Photo of Scott sister diary c.1860s. © Australian Museum Image: -
© Australian Museum

In their skill as artists and scientific observers, Harriet and Helena soon overtook their father and older sisters. By the time the family moved from Sydney to Ash Island in the Hunter River near Newcastle in 1846, Harriet and Helena alone were collecting, keeping and describing butterflies and moths in the notebooks. As well, they were refining their artistic talent and techniques in hundreds of exquisite drawings. The Australian Museum’s Archives holds four volumes of these remarkable notebooks and more than 500 of the family’s fascinating drawings and sketches.

Chelepteryx collesi Gray
Chelepteryx collesi original watercolour by Scott sisters. Photographer: Unknown. © Australian Museum Image: unknown
© Australian Museum

At Scott Point on Ash Island, surrounded by the broad, shining arc of the Hunter River, the girls spent their days collecting butterfly and moth specimens, noting the insects’ habitats and behaviours and carefully nurturing them to adulthood. Each life stage is described and drawn in minute detail at life-size. Scientific accuracy was their goal and guide, tempered by an infectious enthusiasm for their project and their island home. Encouraged and supported by their father, mother and elder sister Mary, the girls’ talent developed quickly. Still only 19 and 21 years old respectively, Helena and Harriet had their own networks of collectors and scientists with whom they corresponded and exchanged specimens, and they sought advice wherever they could. AW Scott’s stream of scientific and artistic visitors from Sydney and overseas included the explorer Ludwig Leichhardt and the landscape painter Conrad Martens. For the girls, the visiting experts were a welcome source of information, books and technical help.

By now, the sisters had begun to paint the first of a set of 100 jewel-like butterfly and moth watercolour paintings that form the heart of the Australian Museum’s Scott collections. Vibrant and delicate, these detailed treasures were the reference set for the illustrations in the Lepidoptera book. At a time before colour printing, illustrated books were produced by the expensive and time-consuming process of lithography, where each plate (illustration) is etched on stone using the original paintings as a guide. Once printed, each plate – in every book – is then painstakingly coloured by hand, using the paintings as colour reference.

Scott Sisters illustrations
Illustrations of butterflies, moths, caterpillars and plants by Harriet and Helena Scott. Photographer: Stuart Humphreys. © Australian Museum Image: Stuart Humphreys
© Australian Museum

No wonder only 200 copies of the first volume were printed, making this a book for the colonial gentry. The paintings Harriet and Helena Scott produced are remarkable, not just for their fine technical detail and accuracy, but also for their artistry, flair and composition. The girls took the primitive art of insect illustration to a new level, adding a perspective and depth to their paintings that could not be seen in any other contemporary natural history illustrations.

Each painting illustrates the complete life cycle of the butterfly or moth, including in most cases the male and female adults – ‘every tuft of hair in the caterpillar, the silken webs of the cocoon, the delicate and often intricate patternings on the moth’. More unusually, the paintings also include accurate foregrounds and backgrounds, showing both the plant the insect feeds on and the landscape it lives in. The result is a three-dimensional view with a rare depth of field. Many of the sketched-in landscape settings show Ash Island, but others depict recognisable Sydney landmarks such as La Perouse, Elizabeth Bay and Cockatoo Island. As was common at the time, the Scotts often copied the backgrounds from other works, particularly those of Sydney artists Conrad Martens and Captain Perry.

By 1851 the first draft of the book was ready to be sent out to publishers. A package of 30 paintings and accompanying text was shipped to the British Museum.There the book languished for the next 10 years, until finally Scott demanded it back, determined to print it himself. Harriet and Helena continued to work on the paintings, revising, refining and repainting until 1864, when the book was printed in Australia and sent back to England for colouring, as there were no local colourists who had sufficient skill for the job.

Only two years later, with a mere 25 copies of the book sold in New South Wales, Scott was bankrupt as a result of his business failings, among which the lavish Lepidoptera book must be counted. The family had to leave their Ash Island haven and return to Sydney, where Harriet and Helena became professional natural history artists. In the years that followed, their remarkable work graced much of Sydney’s scientific literature, including Snakes of Australia (1869) and Mammals of Australia (1871), two landmark publications by Australian Museum Curator Gerard Krefft.

snakes of australia
Illustration of black snake in Snakes of Australia by the Scott sisters. Photographer: Stuart Humphreys. © Australian Museum Image: Stuart Humphreys
© Australian Museum

In 1868, the sisters received a rare honour for women at the time when they were elected honorary members of the Entomological Society of New South Wales. Their financial difficulties, however, had forced them to seek payment for their drawings, the stigma of which was evident when Harriet wrote to one of her clients and begged, ‘above all … let nobody know you are paying me for doing them for you’.

AW Scott went on to serve as Chairman of the Australian Museum from 1874 to 1879. After his death in 1883, Helena sold the family’s beautiful collection of paintings and unfinished manuscripts to the Museum. Determined to see her father’s legacy preserved, she also gained support from Australian Museum Curator Edward Ramsay for a second volume of the Australian Lepidoptera. With the help of Museum entomologist Sidney Oliff, Helena set about the task of interpreting AW Scott’s sometimes chaotic manuscript versions into a publishable set of plates and descriptions. The second volume of the Scott family’s book was published in parts between 1890 and 1898.

The complete two-volume Australian Lepidoptera has only 36 pages and 21 hand-coloured plates. Although not quite the 150-page tome AW Scott had intended, the two volumes of the Lepidoptera are testament to the enthusiasm of Australian colonialists for their new land’s natural history, the devotion of a family to a project spanning 50 years, and the foresight of the Museum Trustees who purchased and kept this rare, beautiful and special collection.

Australian Lepidoptera and their Transformations Volume 1, title page
Australian Lepidoptera and their Transformations Volume 1, title page. Image: Australian Museum
© Australian Museum