Botanic Gardens Trust, Sydney, Australia


Margaret Flockton

Click here to find out about the Margaret Flockton Award.

The life of the first and most long-serving botanical illustrator at the Botanic Garden, Margaret Flockton, has been almost unrecognised until now.

For hundreds of years scientific plant drawings have aided the visual identification of plants for both the botanist and plant enthusiast. Botanical Illustration at the Botanic Garden began with the establishment of the Herbarium in 1901.

Mr. E. Betche, botanical assistant of the time, quoted the will of Sir Joseph Banks. It stated 'the establishment of a Botanic Garden cannot be complete unless a resident draughtsman … be a part thereof'.  And so on June 3, 1901 Miss Margaret Lilian Flockton undertook the task. She depicted with scientific accuracy the botanical subjects of the taxonomists and their assistants. Starting at the age of forty, she would illustrate for the Gardens for the next 27 years, retiring at the age of 67.

Margaret immigrated to Australia from England when she was 19. Her father Francis was also an artist. We assume she must have undertaken specific instruction to create scientific work with such expert skill.

A century ago the process of illustrating was very similar to how we illustrate today. A brief would be given from the taxonomist describing the species to be illustrated, highlighting specific features relative to its identification. Margaret would have used a form of microscope and sophisticated ‘camera lucida’ (a system of mirrors attached to a microscope allowing artwork and subject to be viewed simultaneously). Once initial sketches were completed and checked by the botanist, Margaret would have carefully arranged her compositions to be transferred to the lithographic stone for reproduction.

It is significant to note Margaret was Australia’s only established female lithographic artist at this time.

The consistent high quality of Margaret’s work is inspiring. Her major works include the 88 plates completed for Joseph Henry Maiden’s Critical Revision of the Genus Eucalyptus and also the Forest Flora of NSW.  Her meticulous observation and flawless accuracy,  was complemented by her fine sense of composition and scale. Of hundreds of other works to note are those images painted for Maiden’s Opuntia (Prickly Pair) publication.

Margaret herself also collected specimens. She wrote and illustrated a small colour volume on Lichens, as well as The Wildflowers of Australia.  In total there are now almost 1000 illustrations in the Royal Botanic Gardens & Domain Trust Archive that we can attribute to Margaret Flockton.

Her scrupulous work earnt the highest respect of her friend the Director. Acknowledging her contribution to his Eucalyptus Revision series, J.H. Maiden wrote 'the help I have received from the artist of this work is immense …The faithfulness of the drawing sometimes brought out a hitherto unsuspected point … She is practically a joint author'. Elsewhere he wrote that she was ‘the most accomplished botanical artist in NSW’, even naming a species of Eucalypt after her – Eucalyptus flocktoniae.

In 1909 Margaret was entered in the Register of Salaries as earning 150 pounds per annum, which was then, as today, equivalent to administration staff, technical assistants and horticulturists. Interestingly this was almost ¼ of the Director’s salary. Over the years, J.H. Maiden fought for wage increases for his staff. In 1927, when she retired, Margaret earned 330 pounds per annum – almost half the salary of the Director!

Margaret was not replaced on her retirement, so many scientific papers published to document a new species, went without illustrations. Some botanists attempted to illustrate the plant themselves or used another staff member who had an aptitude for drawing. The results of which vary in quality.

It wasn’t until the early 1980s and the creation of another great botanical text, the Flora of NSW, that illustrators were again formally employed by the Royal Botanic Gardens & Domain Trust. Over ten years 19 illustrators (16 of whom were women) were employed on a contract basis. They produced small pen and ink drawings of EVERY plant species occurring in NSW, native and naturalised. Many of these species had never been illustrated before. Most drawings were completed using only herbarium specimens - pressed, dried plants! 

Since this time the necessity of a permanent in-house illustrator has once again been realised. Six artists have since been employed to illustrate new, renamed and threatened species. Many of these have been published in Telopea, the Royal Botanic Gardens & Domain Trust's systematic journal.

Accurate illustrations of plants are as relevant today as they were in Margaret’s time, even with the improvement of photography. The illustrator can highlight diagnostic features of the species without ambiguity and combine these elements (such as fruits and flowers) together in one composition - a task impossible to achieve with a camera.

The techniques of lithography employed by Margaret Flockton are no longer used in botanical illustration.  Materials have evolved from lithography, to ink on paper, to the present technique of ink on plastic drafting film. 

Computers have also become an integral part of the illustration process, used for preliminary layout and design as well scanning and recording the final artwork.

As all images can now be sent digitally, the Royal Botanic Gardens & Domain Trust retains the originals. Past drawings have now been used to create an illustration archive representing work from the late 1800s to the present. It is interesting to note that over 90% of the artworks are created by women.

This archive is an amazing resource which we hope to make available to the community through the Internet. We also use the collection to illustrate threatened species recovery plans for the National Parks & Wildlife Service and community group publications.

The archive continues to grow, not only from the addition of our work but also with Margaret’s work that is still being found in herbarium boxes, having been hidden for around hundred years!

Who would have thought Margaret Flockton would go digital!

Not much else is known of Margaret Flockton, apart from her career here at the Botanic Garden. She lived her entire life at Tennyson, near Gladesville. For some time she had her own studio on Castlereagh St where she painted in oils and watercolour. She was a member of The Royal Arts Society of NSW with whom she exhibited mostly botanical subjects, from 1894-1901.

She also taught oil and watercolour painting. One of her students was Mary Maiden, daughter of J.H. Maiden, who later worked as an illustrator at the Botanic Garden, in a voluntary capacity.

Margaret lived to the amazing age of 91. However with no husband, no family to carry her name, her life has barely been noted in any way.

The Royal Botanic Gardens Kew has Marianne North firmly established as their first acclaimed illustrator. We would love to see Margaret Flockton given the lasting credit due to her - for her enormous contribution to early Australian botanical illustration and taxonomy.

From a presentation given by Royal Botanic Gardens & Domain Trust botanical illustrators Catherine Wardrop and Lesley Elkan, on the occasion of International Women's Day, March 2003

Click on images to enlarge

Margaret Flockton


Sloanea australis

camera lucida