Margaret Mee (British, 1909-1988), Catasetum Warczewitzii (epiphyte)
Catasetum Warczewitzii (epiphyte)
Gouache over pencil on paper watermarked CM Fabriano, part of a pencil botanical drawing on verso
Inscribed with location “Caatinga - Rio Araca - Am[azonas]” and date “Sept[ember]- Oct[ober]-1970
Image size: 8 1/2 x 12 in
Provenance: Margaret Mee
A field sketch from Mee’s sixth expedition, journeying into the forest by canoe, “Araken manoeuvered the canoe skillfully into calm waters, and we landed on a rocky shore, part of a great stone which formed the base of the forest through which he led us. We found ourselves in the loveliest glade, green with ferns and mosses, where little streams trickled through rock crevices. On a moss-covered branch I found Clowesia Warczewitzii, an orchid species which had not been seen by botanists for eighty years” (M. Mee Margaret Mee’s Amazon (Woodbridge and Kew: 2004), p. 164). This sketch is preparatory to a finished gouache titled Clowesia Warczewitzii (the more modern name) and captioned “Rio Araca, Rio Negro, Am. April, 1971” (cf. M. Mee In Search of Flowers of the Amazon Forests (Woodbridge: 1988), p. 167; R.L.A. Stiff Margaret Mee. Return to the Amazon (London: 1998), p. 157; J. Heilbron and G. Mendes, ed. Illustracao botanica. Orquideas Brasileiras (Rio de Janeiro: 2000), p. 29; M. Mee Margaret Mee’s Amazon (Woodbridge and Kew: 2004), p. 165.
MARGARET MEE (BRITISH, 1909-1988)
Unlike Amazon botanical artists before her, Margaret worked entirely from living plants. Her fifteen expeditions into the interior, mostly to Amazonia, involved traveling and living under the most primitive conditions. She would draw at night by torchlight to capture rare nocturnal flowers, and this immediacy gave her paintings an accuracy, depth, and color unrivaled by her predecessors. Her travels coincided with the beginning of the commercial exploitation of the forest, and she expressed her fury at the damage caused to the land and its peoples” (DNB).
Mee’s magnificent botanical paintings, most based on specimens collected during her own expeditions, includes several illustrations and descriptions of plants either recently discovered (one by Mee herself) or never previously illustrated, as explained in the preface by Sir George Taylor, Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, who compares Mee’s paintings favorably to the work of her predecessor C.F. P. von Martius, author of the Flora brasiliensis (1840-1906). 17 plant families are represented, with each section introduced by one of 10 different botanist contributors. The plates are accompanied by detailed part-scientific, part-anecdotal descriptions by the artist. Some are quite poignant, for Mee experienced first-hand the tremendous losses to the world’s ecological resources that began occurring in the 20th century. Noting, for example, that in previous years she was able to find the rare Brazilian orchid Laelia purpurata “in the swampy forests around Ubatuba,” she deplores the fact that “these wonderful coastal forests are being steadily destroyed, often for use as firewood! With them perish untold numbers of animals and plants. So the advance of civilisation and industrialization proceeds at the cost of the total destruction of all that is most beautiful and precious in creation” (text to Plate 13).
Margaret Mee was in her forties when she first visited Brazil with her husband Greville Mee. They moved there soon after, and it was at the age of 47 that she made her first expedition up the Amazon. Over the next 32 years, she made a number of further trips up the Amazon and in coastal areas of Brazil, some of them lasting for four months. During these years, she continued to paint and draw what she saw and kept diaries of her travels, later published. In 1988, at the age of 79 and shortly after completing another Amazon trip, Mee came to England to lecture to the Royal Geographic Society and to attend the opening of an exhibition of her paintings at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
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