The faithful pencil of Mrs Withers

 Fuschia Princess of Wales (Augusta Withers) -http://www.collectgbstamps.co.uk

Fuchsia ‘Princess of Wales’, by Augusta Withers  one of the 1997 range of 19thc flower painting stamps                             http://www.collectgbstamps.co.uk

The more I explore botanic art the more I realise how underestimated it has been as an art form, and the more I realise how underestimated botanical artists have been.  Of course part of the reason for that may well have been that many, if not the overwhelming majority, have been women. 

AUGUSTA INNES WITHERS (c.1793-1870) Tritoma Uvaria, Torch Lily or Red Hot Poker (1866English)

Tritoma uvaria, Torch Lily or Red Hot Poker (1866)

Our old friend John Claudius Loudon helps explain why: “to be able to draw Flowers botanically, and Fruit horticulturally, that is, with the characteristics by which varieties and sub varieties are distinguished, is one of the most useful accomplishments of young ladies of leisure, living in the country.” He then goes on: ” It is due to Mrs Withers of Grove Terrace, Lisson Grove, to state that her talents and teaching these objects are of the highest order.”   So who was this Mrs Withers?  What did she do to win Loudon’s praise? Why has she, like so many other  women artists of the time, virtually been forgotten?screenshot

Ipomoea indica (Burm.) Merr. [as Pharbitis learii (Knight ex Paxton) Lindl.] blue dawn flower, Morning glory Maund, B., Henslow, J.S., The botanist, vol. 4: t. 184 (1840) [A.I. Withers]

Ipomoea indica or  Morning glory
from  The Botanist, vol. 4: t. 184 (1840)

Daughter of a Gloucestershire clergyman Augusta Baker was born in 1793. Little else appears to be known about her early life or where she learned to draw and paint, but in 1822 she married a London accountant   Theodore Gibson Withers and had a son in 1823.  And as you might have gathered from Loudon’s comments  they began living in Lisson Grove, Marylebone, although they later moved to St John’s Wood and Chelsea.

Hoya pallida from the Transcations of the Horticultural SOcirty of London, vol.7 1830

Hoya pottsii from the Transactions of the Horticultural Society of London, vol.7 1830

Augusta must have started taking on artistic work around the same time and by the end of the 1820s was extremely well established as a painter of flowers, particularly newly imported exotics for the conservatory and hothouse. She also became well-known for her depictions of fruit of all kinds,

Her first important commission seems to have been for William Hooker  (no relation to the more famous Sir William of Kew fame) who was botanical artist to the Horticultural Society of London from 1812 until he became mentally ill in 1819 and could only work  intermittently  until his death in 1826.  Augusta was one of four artists asked to help  finish a project of  10 vols of watercolour paintings of fruit which were designed to clarify the often conflicting names of cultivated fruit varieties.  she contributed   12 drawings  in 1825-26.  Like all her work it is merely signed ‘Mrs Withers’.

The Red and Yellow Powis mangoes from The Transactions of the Hortivultutal Society of London, vol.6 1826

The Red and Yellow Powis mangoes from The Transactions of the Horticultural Society of London, vol.6 1826

 

detail from Mr Knight's seedling plums, from The Transactions of the Hortivultutal Society of London, vol.6 1826

detail from Mr Knight’s seedling plums, from The Transactions of the Horticultural Society of London, vol.6 1826

another detail from Mr Knight's seedling plums, from The Transactions of the Hortivultutal Society of London, vol.6 1826

another detail from  Mr Knight’s seedling plums,  The Transactions of the Horticultural Society of London, vol.6 1826

At the same time  she began to undertake regular work for  the Transactions of the Horticultural Society of London. The mangoes were to accompany an article by the Society’s secretary, Joseph Sabine, about the Earl of Powis’s success [or presumably his gardener’s!]  in growing them from seed, in which Sabine praises “the faithful pencil of Mrs Withers.”

Although  her high fees apparently caused some irritation she must have been well regarded.  John Lindley, the society’s assistant-secretary, took her on to illustrate his fruit  journal,  Pomological Magazine which ran between (1827–30). This was later issued in book form as Pomona Britannica. 

Her work there is covered by an excellent article by Brent Elliot in the Lindley Library’s Occasional Papers where he argues that her drawings were of such an extraordinary quality that, even with the best engravers, they are not done justice in the printed version.

TheMalcarle or Charles Apple from the Transcations of the Horticultural SOcirty of London, vol.7 1830

The Malcarle or Charles Apple from the Transactions of the Horticultural Society of London, vol.7 1830

They serve as a good illustration of  the truth of Ruskin’s passage about the impossibility of conveying the light of nature in art:  “nature surpass[es] us in power of obtaining light as much as the sun surpasses white paper”. He later added that “therefore the highest light an artist can ordinarily command for his work is that of white paint, or paper… And yet to express all this, we have but our poor white paper after all. We must not talk too proudly of our “truths” of art.” [  Ruskin, Modern Painters, full citation in the article)

Gooseberry Compton's Sheba Queen, drawn by Withers for the Horticultural Society, 1825

Gooseberry Crompton’s Sheba Queen,  by Mrs Withers for the Horticultural Society, 1825

Gooseberry Crompton's Sheba Queen, Pomological Magazine, 1828

Gooseberry Crompton’s Sheba Queen, Pomological Magazine, 1828

As proof of this Brent Elliot cites two versions of an illustration of a gooseberry.  In the printed engraved image [on the right ] which is based on another of Mrs Withers drawings of the same subject [above left] the ‘white’  on the gooseberry is represented by a gap in the colouring of the white paper.  However, in her original drawings, “the highlight is depicted with an extraordinary translucency which suggests the use of a white underlay, almost enamel-like in its brightness, lightly washed with the yellowish green used for the skin.  I know of no other botanical illustration which captures so well the quality of a translucent skin.”  High praise indeed.   The whole of his article can be read at:

https://www.rhs.org.uk/about-the-rhs/pdfs/publications/lindley-library-occasional-papers/volume-7-march-2012

In August 1830 Augusta Withers was appointed  flower painter in ordinary and teacher of botanical drawing to Queen Adelaide, which must have given  her added visibility and status.

Duchess of Angouleme pear, from from the Transcations of the Horticultural SOcirty of London, vol.7 1830

Duchess of Angouleme pear, from  the Transactions of the Horticultural Society of London, vol.7 1830

By this time she must also have been teaching botanical art on a wider scale. After his comments about her skill Loudon goes on to say “we have observed, with no small pride and pleasure, that several of our principal nurseryman, not only about London, but in the country, have brought, or are bringing, forward their daughters, so as to be competent to make scientific portraits, not only of fruits and flowers, but of trees and shrubs, in their different stages of growth.”   (Gardener’s Magazine, 1831, p.95).

Beurre d’Aremberg Pera and Gloux Morceaux Pear, from from the Transcations of the Horticultural SOcirty of London, vol.7 1830

Beurre d’Aremberg Pera and Gloux Morceaux Pear, from from the Transactions of the Horticultural Society of London, vol.7 1830

However Loudon was capable of being critical too. The Gardener’s Magazine which he founded and edited reported on ‘An exhibition Of “A selection of heartseases” painted by Mrs Withers, which had lately been exhibited at the Horticultural Society’s rooms, and also shown to us at Bayswater.  The varieties are beautiful, and they are most exquisitely painted.  An eminent artist happened to call while they were before us, who declared he had never seen any work of the kind so beautifully executed.  There can be no question of the high talents and great industry of Mrs Withers.”  Unfortunately I can’t find any images of this body of work.

A basket of flowers https://www.dorotheum.com

A basket of flowers [including some heartsease pansies]
https://www.dorotheum.com

But, and with Loudon there usually is a but, neither  he nor  the ‘eminent artist’ liked her arrangement of the flowers:  “the mode of mixing the different varieties together, adopted by Mrs Withers, in common with the growers of florist’ flowers, instead arranging them according to their affinities.”  But Mrs Withers was having none of this,  she   told Loudon “that the flowers were placed in the order she drew them by her employer”.    It did not pay to argue with John Claudius, especially as he was writing the article.  “This lady, and all other artists, should endeavour to correct the taste of their employers, in matters connected with their profession.”  (Gardener’s Magazine., 1834, 452–3).

Thorn Apple flower from Ecuador, Datura rosei (gouache), Withers, Augusta Innes (fl.1829-65) from the Botanist

Thorn Apple , Brugmannsia sanguinea,  from The Botanist vol.1, 1836

Augusta also did over 100 illustrations  for Benjamin Maund who edited and published The Botanic Garden. This ran for  13 volumes  starting in 1825. She then provided illustrations for his magazine The Botanist  which was published between 1836–42.  Once again, as one of her original paintings of the same subject show, the printing could not do her work full service.

 

Euphorbia splendens The Botanist, vol.

Euphorbia splendens
The Botanist, vol.1, 1836

Nevertheless all her editors praise her work.

screenshot

extract from the notes in The Botanist accompanying Euphorbia splendens

Kennedia carinata (Benth.) Domin [as Physolobium carinatum Benth.] Maund, B., Henslow, J.S., The botanist, vol. 4: t. 183 (1840) [A.I. Withers]

Kennedia carinata  [as Physolobium carinatum  from ]
The Botanist, vol. 4: t. 183 (1840)

She contributed orchids and other plants both to The Floral Cabinet between 1837 and 1840 and  Curtis’s Botanical Magazine.

Cattleya pumila Hook. Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, vol. 65 [ser. 2, vol. 12]: t. 3656 (1839) [A.I. Withers]

Cattleya pumila 
Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, vol. 65 [ser. 2, vol. 12]: t. 3656 (1839)

 

 

 

 

It was probably orchids that gave her greatest challenge and her greatest achievement.  Working with Sarah Anne Drake, she drew all the  illustrations for the lithographic plates in James Bateman’s monumental Orchidaceae of Mexico and Guatemala (1837–41) which was dedicated to Queen Adelaide, her patron.[see post on Stumperies, Feb 2015 for more on Bateman]

https://parksandgardensuk.wordpress.com/2015/05/02/stumperies/

Stanhopia tigrina from

Stanhopia tigrina from Orchidaceae of Mexico and Guatemala

Cattleyia skinneri from Orchidaceae of Mexico and Guatemala

Cattleyia skinneri from Orchidaceae of Mexico and Guatemala

The whole of Bateman’s amazing book, complete with all of the plates drawn by Miss Drake and Mrs Withers can be found at:

https://archive.org/stream/mobot31753000315736#page/n1/mode/1up

The 1840s though were not a good time for the Withers.  For some reason she did not receive as many botanical commissions as in earlier years, her husband became ill and then went blind and her main patron Queen Adelaide died in 1849.  Nevertheless Mrs Withers continued painting and a large number of still life compositions with flowers, fruit and birds survive.

Augusta Innes Withers (England 1793–1870) “A basket of flowers”, an old title on the reverse, signed Mrs. Withers, watercolor on paper https://www.google.co.uk/search?q=%22augusta+innes+withers%22&lr=&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwj0_v6P657JAhXG7BQKHY65DToQ_AUICigD&biw=1383&bih=942#imgrc=yE3IBwK09FH3rM%3A

“A basket of flowers”, an old title on the reverse, signed Mrs. Withers, 
http://www.liveinternet.ru/users/4386710/post304244757/

'The illustrated bouquet, consisting of figures with descriptions of new flowers Vol. 3' Published by E.G. Henderson & Son London 1857-1864. NAL Pressmark: 48.B.31 (Plate LXXVIII 'Methonica')

‘Methonica’ from The illustrated bouquet,  Vol. 3′ E.G. Henderson 1857-1864. http://www.vam.ac.uk/users/node/6605

 

Among her last published material were the some of the  images  in The Illustrated Bouquet, which consisted “of figures with descriptions of new flowers” and was published by the St John’s Wood nurseryman Edward George Henderson.

Fuschias by Augusta Withers, ‘Illustrated Bouquet’ NAL 48.B.30 © Victoria and Albert Museum,

Fuschias from The Illustrated Bouquet   Victoria and Albert Museum,

 

Audrey Le Lievre who write an article about Augusta Withers for Country Life in [‘Flower painter extraordinary’, 2 Feb 1989, pp.66–9] says that by  1863 her financial position had become so desperate that she had to pawn her paintings.

Gloxinia in a pot (England, c.1860) Sold Sold Watercolour on paper Inscribed with title and price 8.8.0 http://www.leicestergalleries.com/19th-20th-century-paintings/d/augusta-innes-withers/13956

Gloxinia in a pot (England, c.1860) priced on the back at 8 guineas
http://www.leicestergalleries.com/19th-20th-century-paintings/d/augusta-innes-withers/13956

Rather than ask the Artists Benevolent Fund for assistance she successfully petitioned Queen Victoria for patronage. Not only did Victoria buy some paintings she also  appointed Mrs Withers  ‘Flower and Fruit Painter in Ordinary’  on 24 May 1864.  This royal vote of confidence unfortunately did not persuade the Society of Water Colour Painters to elect Mrs Withers  to membership, something which might have revitalised sales of her works.

An Auricula in a Pot in a Basket Cachepot, with Painted Lady and Orange Tip Butterflies Signed : flower painter to Queen Adelaide and Mrs Withers St. John's Wood on a trompe l'oeil letter

An Auricula in a Pot in a Basket Cachepot, with Painted Lady and Orange Tip Butterflies
Signed : flower painter to Queen Adelaide and Mrs Withers St. John’s Wood on a trompe l’oeil letter

Despite this decline in apparent popularity the quality of her art  continued to be admired:  a study of red and white currants at the  Society of Female Artists in 1864,  for example, was called “one of the best studies exhibited” by The Art Review.

Theodore Withers died in 1869 and Augusta  found herself ‘positively penniless and nearly starving’ (Le Lievre, p69). She died, in obscurity, of pneumonia and ‘senile decay’ in an asylum, St Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics, Old Street, London, on 11 August 1876.

These days her works are in high demand at auction. Three of her paintings are in the Natural History Museum of London, and a large number of her original watercolors are held in the Lindley Library of the Royal Horticultural Society, and as you saw from the first image in this post one of her works was chosen for a commemorative stamp.screenshot

 

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One Response to The faithful pencil of Mrs Withers

  1. Sue Parry-Davies says:

    Dear David

    The Augusta Withers post is a real gem. Thank you. Since I signed up I have enjoyed almost all the Saturday posts. I know you ‘keep a little list’ of topics for forthcoming posts. Would you consider adding to it Mountain Jennings who I know worked with John Tradescant, senior, at Hatfield and would be interested to know more?

    All the best

    Sue

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