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Transformations: Harriet and Helena Scott, colonial Sydney’s finest natural history painters

Harriet and Helena Scott were without doubt the finest natural history painters of their time. Many would argue they still hold that distinction, as their work, created more than one hundred years ago, is today still used as a reference when categorising moths, butterflies and insects of colonial Australia, a number of which have become extinct over the past century.

Their work has left a lasting, sophisticated scientific record of what is best described as the ‘natural history’ surrounding Sydney, Newcastle and latterly Ash Island, near Newcastle on the Hunter River.

Transformations is more than just a record and lovely collection of their amazing artwork, it is also relative to the time when women where considered to have little if any purpose in the academic world, were actively discourage from taking a more productive place in society and marginalised should they dare to be different.

The sisters had been bought up in a home that was as diverse as it was scientific, their father Alexander Walker Scott, was from a family who were very immersed in ‘natural history’; his older brothers Helenus and Robert, being the first members of the family to settle in new colony of New South Wales and taking up land, sent back to England samples and skins of various Australian specimens to their mother, Augustus.

Encouraged from an early age to record the wonderful moths, butterflies and insects that abounded in the countryside, the sisters produced an amazing volume of work during the years of 1849 to 1951, developing what is referred to as the ‘genre-blending, innovative style’, which reflected a ‘history, specificity and subjectivity’ rarely seen in entomological painting. Harriet and Helena were well ahead of their times with their accomplished work which was received to great acclaim.

Women at that time were not accepted into University, a place both the sisters desired, therefore, with the support of their Father, had to make do with the world around them. His efforts to saw their work recognised, and he encouraged a long and fruitful association with the Australian Museum, an institution that was to benefit greatly from their donations of manuscripts, species and artworks.

The advent of the industrial age saw the demand for hand painted works declined, the death of their beloved Father, and the associated changes in family circumstances saw the sisters living in very much altered circumstances. Until her death Helena struggled with earning a living, along with marginalisation from the Museums of her youth and middle years.

All this and so much more has been skilfully arranged amongst the magnificent pictures of Harriet and Helena’s incredibly detailed work; work which shows the transformation from artwork of accepted ‘prettiness’ to that of serious entomological detail, with in some instances, the background detail as in the plate Psalidostetha murrea Scott, showing the landscape of Bombo Beach from the headland of Kiama.

Occasionally, amongst the more scientific drawing, are some simple everyday sketches such as the one on page 143, an enigmatic drawing from sister Harriet to brother Edward in 1866.

In creating Transformations, Vanessa Finney has bought to life once again the incredible determination of two women, born into the wrong era in so many ways, and the legacy they left, to not just the world of Science but to the world of Art, with their extraordinary talent.

Left undisturbed for many years on the shelves of the Australian Museum, it is fitting that this work has been complied as a history of their lives, as well as they and their family’s scientific achievements. This has resulted in a captivating and charming biography of the times they grew up in and the challenges faced by women who were different, were encouraged to be different and the professional and societal challenges faced.

Harriet and Helena Scott – ‘two of Australia’s most prominent natural historians’ have now been given their true and proper place in the world of Science and Art!

 

AuthorVanessa Finney
PublisherNew South Publications
ISBN9781742235806
Websitehttps://www.newsouthbooks.com.au/books/transformations/
DistributorNew South Books
ReleasedDecember 2018