Botanica Collected

Elsie Margaret Stones and the Flora of Louisiana

 

By Elaine B. Smyth,
Interim Assistant Dean of the LSU Libraries,
Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, LA

 

Originally appeared in The Botanical Artist - Volume  16, Issue 3

 

Melbourne, Australia, 1945. A young art student turned nurse contracts pneumonia. Doctors prescribe eighteen months of bed rest in hospital. Friends and family visit the impatient patient and find her “going mad with boredom.” They bring her paper, pencils, watercolors, and wild flowers, from the nearby Grampian Mountains, to draw. Thus begins the career of one of the twentieth century’s most distinguished botanical artists, which resulted in the creation of three major bodies of work on three continents.   Elsie Margaret Stones – always called Margaret – was born in Colac, Australia, southwest of Melbourne, on August 28, 1920. Her father, Frederick Stones, had been a farmer in the district, and her mother, Agnes, came from nearby Terang. The 1920s and 30s were difficult times in Australia, particularly for farmers, who suffered both economic and social upheaval. The Stones family struggled throughout those decades, moving from place to place as farms failed, sometimes unable to live together. 

As a child, Margaret loved to draw and despite the upheaval of those early years, her family encouraged and supported her in her artistic endeavours. After attending Swinburne Girls’ Junior Technical School in Melbourne, she won a three-year scholarship to study Industrial Art at Swinburne Technical College (now Swinburne University of Technology). Already sure of her preferred profession at age fifteen, she entered her occupation in her student records as “artist.” Forced to leave school when her scholarship expired, she earned a living doing commercial art during the day, but continued to study, attending night classes at the National Gallery of Victoria Art School, until World War II intervened. 

Although Australia entered World War II in 1939, declaring war against Germany, it wasn’t until December 1941 that the war moved into the Pacific. In 1942, as part of the home-front war effort, Stones began working as a nurse at the Epworth Hospital in Richmond, a suburb of Melbourne. In late 1945, she contracted pulmonary tuberculosis and was hospitalized. The drawings she made of wildflowers while convalescing attracted the attention of her physician, Dr. Clive Fitts. Through his good offices, her work was seen by Daryl Lindsay, Director of the National Gallery of Victoria, and Robert Haines of Georges Gallery, Melbourne, who gave Stones her first solo exhibition, which opened in December 1946. It was a critical success. In a remarkable burst of productivity, she went on to produce three more gallery exhibitions within four years, while at the same time completing a major commission for a private collector, John McDonnell, attending botany lectures at the University of Melbourne, and spending three summers as part of a botanical expedition to the Bogong High Plains of Victoria.

Her time on the Bogong Plains was the result of another important personal connection made by Clive Fitts, who introduced her to John Stewart Turner, Professor of Botany and Plant Physiology at the University of Melbourne. Because of Turner, Stones began not only to study botany and its historical development but also the history of botanical illustration, which she has continued to focus on throughout her life. As her knowledge of botany and botanical illustration grew, she grew determined to work and study at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, where distinguished artists had worked with noted botanists since the gardens were founded in 1759.

By 1951, she had saved enough to purchase a one-way passage on a ship bound for England. She made the voyage armed with a letter of introduction from Daryl Lindsay to Harold Wright, a Director of Painting & Drawing, and Colnaghi Gallery, a noted dealer in prints and drawings. Within months, Colnaghi had given her an exhibition, and the firm continued to represent her until the 1970s. 

Shortly after arriving in London, Stones found lodgings near Kew, where she continued to live until she returned to Australia in 2002. Soon she was engaged as a freelance artist at Kew, and in 1956 her first drawing – an analytical drawing in pen and ink – was published in Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, the journal affiliated with the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. Over the next twenty-five years, she created the first of her major bodies of work, consisting of more than 400 drawings made for that magazine. When she first arrived at Kew, Stones spent many hours making pen-and-ink drawings of herbarium specimens that had been dried and then boiled to rehydrate them, and dissected under a microscope. Writing about her work later, she noted that this provided invaluable training for botanical drawing for someone with her more general background and training in art. Over time she determined that for her watercolor portraits of plants, she would work only from live specimens, eschewing the use of photographs. She developed the general habit of working indoors, with the specimen and a microscope at hand, but her indoor work was frequently supplemented with field work that gave her a sense of plants’ natural habits and habitats. 

During her decades at Kew, she pursued other projects as well. In 1961, Milo John Reginald Talbot, 7th Baron Talbot de Malahide, wrote to Stones to ask her to draw the plants of Tasmania, where he had come into possession of an estate in 1940. Plants were airshipped from Tasmania to Kew for her to draw. By 1962, she had completed forty drawings for him. With that collection of drawings in hand, Talbot de Malahide approached John Roberts of the Ariel Press, London, with an idea for The Endemic Flora of Tasmania. With botanical commentary by Dr. Winifred Curtis and outstanding color printing done by Ariel, the book proved a stunning success. As the stream of air-freighted specimens continued, Stones created 254 drawings to illustrate the six-volume work, which was completed in 1978. 

As the Tasmanian project was drawing to a close, a project in Louisiana began – her last major body of work on a third continent. In 1976, Stones was commissioned to create six watercolor drawings of Louisiana native flora to be a lasting legacy of Louisiana State University’s bicentennial celebration. The LSU community was thrilled with the result, and the project soon blossomed with the support of people throughout the state. Professor Lowell Urbatsch of LSU was recruited as the chief botanical advisor, and dozens of people from all across the state contributed funds and time to make the project a success. 

An important difference between the Tasmanian project and the Louisiana work was that Stones’ method of working only from live plant material made it imperative that she visit Louisiana regularly. Unlike the tough Tasmanian flora, Louisiana native plants could not survive air shipment. Stones first visited Baton Rouge in February, 1976, beginning an association that produced not only a significant collection of botanical art but also many enduring friendships. 

Writing Beauty in Truth: The Botanical Art of Margaret Stones (the best single source of information about the artist), Irena Zdanowicz describes Stones’ working methods and the demands made by her exclusive use of live specimens: “She works swiftly and instinctively, partly from temperament, but also from a conviction that it is crucial to portray the plant as a living object whose true delineations must be captured before it begins to wilt and its colours change. Not infrequently, the plant’s behavior demands speed of execution…. [On one occasion] the audible click of buds opening on a branch of magnolia – kept overnight in the humid atmosphere of a bathroom – had her leaping from bed in the early hours of the morning to draw them. The two sketches and the finished drawing of the same specimen of Magnolia macrophylla … document the slight but unmistakable movement of leaves and buds over a short period of time – differences of detail which otherwise could, erroneously, be seen as a case of artistic licence.” 

By the time the Louisiana project drew officially to a close in 1991, Stones had created more than 200 watercolor drawings of Louisiana flora. She returned to Australia in 2002, where she still lives and works at age 90. The Native Flora of Louisiana Collection, as it is now known, is administered as part of the LSU Libraries’ Special Collections division, housed in Hill Memorial Library on the LSU campus in Baton Rouge. The drawings are exhibited regularly in the library (a selection is on display through November 13, 2010), and they have also been exhibited at venues across the United States, in Great Britain, and at the National Gallery of Victoria, in Melbourne. Thanks to a generous donor, they have been digitized and are available as a digital collection at www.lib.lsu.edu/special/stones/, in digital files that allow the viewer to zoom in on the smallest details. There is no substitute for viewing the originals, though, and they are available for viewing by appointment on site in Baton Rouge. 

Margaret is a member of the Order of the British Empire and the Order of Australia; she received the Royal Horticultural Society Veitch Silver Memorial Medal and the Veitch Gold Memorial Medal, and Garden Club of America’s prestigious Eloise Payne Luquer Medal for special achievement in the field of botany. She holds honorary degrees from the University of Melbourne and LSU. 

Biographical information about Margaret Stones is drawn from Irena Zdanowicz’s wonderful essays in Beauty in Truth: The Botanical Art of Margaret Stones, the catalog of an exhibition of Stones’s work at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1996. Additional information about the Native Flora of Louisiana Collection is available from Elaine Smyth,  esmyth@lsu.edu.

Flora of Louisiana, Watercolor Drawings, by Margaret Stones with Botanical Descriptions by Lowell Urbatsch, ISBN 978-0-8071-1664-7 is available at amazon.com.  

  • Pinus palustris, watercolor on paper, Native Flora of Louisiana Collection. Courtesy of Special Collections, Louisiana State University Libraries, Baton Rouge, LA
  • Cover of Margaret Stones volume that contains her work in Louisiana
  • Magnolia macrophylla, original sketch, showing gridding (above), painting transferred onto watercolor paper with underpaintings in progress with watercolor and the completed painting in watercolor (below), Native Flora of Louisiana Collection. Courtesy of Special Collections, Louisiana State University Libraries, Baton Rouge, LA
  • Asclepias lanceolata, Native Flora of Louisiana Collection. Courtesy of Special Collections, Louisiana State University Libraries, Baton Rouge, LA
  • Orontium aquaticum, watercolor on paper, Native Flora of Louisiana Collection. Courtesy of Special Collections, Louisiana State University Libraries, Baton Rouge, LA
  • Nymphaea elegans, watercolor on paper, Native Flora of Louisiana Collection. Courtesy of Special Collections, Louisiana State University Libraries, Baton Rouge, LA