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.
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?
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.
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’.
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.
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)
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:
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.
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).
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.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).
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.
Nevertheless all her editors praise her work.
She contributed orchids and other plants both to The Floral Cabinet between 1837 and 1840 and Curtis’s Botanical Magazine.
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]
The whole of Bateman’s amazing book, complete with all of the plates drawn by Miss Drake and Mrs Withers can be found at:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.