By Jean Balchin 28/03/2018


When I was a child, my father and I would sit at the kitchen table after tea, armed with a set of Reeve’s watercolour paints, a grubby cup of water, sheets of cartridge paper and various picture books depicting the flora and fauna of Great Britain. My Dad was quite the artist, and he patiently taught me how to pull the red paint down the page into the curve of a fox’s tale, and how to carefully splatter flecks of yellow to create a field of buttercups.

Perhaps we should have looked to our own backyard for artistic inspiration, but my father was from Scotland, and he missed his homeland dreadfully. Teaching his young daughter how to capture the likeness of honeysuckles and china roses, grey squirrels and bluebells was one way of remembering the flora and fauna of his childhood.

Thus from a young age, I grew up loving art and the countryside around me. I was taught to look and examine, to gently unfurl the baby fronds of the silver fern, and just as gently, roll them back up. Soon, I moved on from childish sketches of snowdrops and fox cubs to more wild and imaginative renditions of the New Zealand bush. My ponga trees reached up to the sky, and the kowhai flowers looked like menacing yellow eyes, glowing in the forest. I wasn’t scientifically accurate at all. There’s no way my artworks could be used to illustrate herbals, pharmacopoeia, field guides or catalogues. But recently, I had the honour of talking to an incredible botanical illustrator, Audrey Eagle (CNZM).

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Born in Timaru in 1925, Audrey Eagle moved to England at the age of eight with her parents and younger siblings. “I remember remonstrating with them and saying I didn’t want to leave NZ,” said Audrey, “I told them I would return one day.” Over in Oxfordshire, Audrey’s spare time “was spent in the woods with the plants, drawing them near our house.” When I asked what prompted her love of botanical illustration, she told me about how her father set up an engineering firm making scientific instruments.

“I followed in his footsteps,” she said, “and trained as an engineering draughtsman in England and later here. I also worked as a draughtsman in an instrument firm in Oxford. For several years I went to night school; it was three times a week studying engineering, draughting, mechanics and electrics for a further period. I also took classes in Art – which I loved.”

I can see now why Audrey’s work is so brilliantly technical and accurate, combining her twin loves of engineering and art. I asked what prompted her to capture New Zealand’s flora and fauna in ink and paint:

“Although I have nothing to show for it, I do remember that drawing and painting were an important part of my life, from an early age. It wasn’t until my early teens that an interest in native plants became important to me. Then I started painting native plants, partly to help me learn and remember their names. There was a dearth of publications on our natives in those years, particularly illustrated texts.”

Given the intricate beauty of her paintings, it’s surprising to hear that Audrey has had no official botanical training. “I have never heard of any training for botanical illustrations,” she says, although she did have classes in figure drawing on a few occasions. “My attraction to the native bush and the mountain flora have been the driving force of my plant illustrations.”

Eagle’s Complete Trees and Shrubs

Her magnum opus, Eagle’s Complete Trees and Shrubs represents her life work; over fifty years of drawings and paintings of all the trees and shrubs native to New Zealand. Totalling 800 botanical paintings, the hefty tome has won several awards, including the 2007 Montana Medal for Non-Fiction. Last time I was at Te Papa museum, I hunted the book down and spent a good half an hour slowly thumbing through the book in the gift shop, much to the chagrin of the shopkeeper. I’d have loved to have bought it, but alas, the disposable income of a student only stretches so far.

Audrey Eagle’s Complete Trees and Shrubs. Te Papa.

From what I could tell from my brief interlude at the gift shop, all the plants in Eagle’s Complete Trees and Shrubs are life-sized, with some parts enlarged. Accompanied by a brief description of the plant’s appearance and habitat, each entry is labelled with both the Latin names, the common name and the Maori nomenclature. Flowers, fruits, leaves and roots flourish on each page in this brilliant contribution New Zealand’s botany studies.

But why exactly are botanical drawings so important? Well, botanical illustration combines both artistic and scientific values. A botanical drawing must be interesting enough to captivate the reader’s attention, but more importantly, it must portray a plant with the precision and detail necessary for it to be recognised and distinguished from other species. Wander into almost any art gallery, and you’re bound to come across a still-life of flowers beside a bowl of fruit, or something of that ilk.

Now, if this painting is by Picasso, it obviously won’t be a faithful copy of real life. However other great artists, such as Jan Brueghel the Elder, Juan Sánchez Cotán and Hans Memling painted remarkably lifelike depictions of vases overflowing with blooms, always artfully arranged beside a window or a carefully rumpled tablecloth. However even for these artists, their primary goal was still aesthetics rather than accuracy. Audrey’s paintings combine both aesthetics and accuracy.

Still life with bull’s skull, 1939 – Pablo Picasso. WIkimedia Commons.

A history of Botanical Illustration

Botanical illustration began many centuries ago, with early herbals and pharmacopoeia of a wide range of cultures including the depiction of plants. These pamphlets aided in the identification of various species, often for medicinal purposes. The Codex vindobonensis, a copy of Dioscorides’s De Materia Medica constitutes the earliest survival illustrated botanical work. However, the issue of accurately describing plants between regions and languages prior to the introduction of taxonomy proved problematic, and indeed, potentially hazardous to medicinal preparations.

With the publication of systems of botanical nomenclature, the need for a drawing or painting became optional. However, botanical illustrations actually began to surge in popularity, as advances in the printing process enabled illustrations to be more accurate in colour and detail. Couple this with the increasing interest of amateur botanists, gardeners and natural historians in the eighteenth century, and there was a market for botanical publications.

Here in New Zealand, we have a rich history of botanical exploration. You may not have heard of Joseph Hooker or William Curtis, but you probably have come across some of the plants named by them. In the Victorian period, it was very fashionable for well-off gentlemen to collect unique, exotic plants from far-away countries. Most of these botanical treasures did not last the voyages, so a well-illustrated pamphlet cataloguing these fascinating species would have to suffice. In the 18th century, Joseph Banks arrived on Captain Cook’s Endeavour to New Zealand in search of previously unknown plant species.

In The great South Sea Caterpillar, transform’d into a Bath Butterfly (1795), James Gillray caricatured Banks’s investiture with the Order of the Bath as a result of his expedition. Wikimedia Commons.

But what about photography? 

But why won’t a simple photograph suffice? No doubt photography, especially microscopic photography informs botanical work. However there is a need for botanical illustration because meticulously detailed drawings and paintings can represent clearly what might be omitted in a photograph. Audrey’s clearly defined outline drawings distinguish lines, and veins in a leaf that might not be made out using reflected light alone. Moreover, botanical artists can create an idealised image of a plant from several specimens, including for example both the face and reverse of features such as leaves. Finally, details of sections can be included at a magnified scale and positioned around the margins of the image. “Once started and seeing a need for detailed illustrations after which I think in some ways are clearer than photographs of plants, I set about supplying that need,” says Audrey.

In our current world of Instagram, Tumblr and the proliferation of cheap cameras, it’s reassuring to see that there’s still a place for painted images of plants. According to Mary Lovell-Smith of The Press, “Audrey Eagle’s meticulous and beautiful renditions of our native flora are acclaimed, but it is in her insistence on accuracy that makes her works on native trees and shrubs such respected reference books.” Hear, hear.