Louise Wilson's book Margaret Flockton: Fragrant Memory (published by Wakefield Press, 2016) tells that Margaret Flockton (1861–1953) grew up in England amidst a very arty family. She formally trained in art and lithography at the National Art Training School in South Kensington.
She arrived in Australia from Britain in 1888 and lived in a suburb overlooking beautiful Sydney Harbour. Her first regular employment was as commercial lithographer for a commercial publishing firm in Sydney. Then in Charters Towers in Queensland where Margaret conducted art classes and her sister Phoebe contributed to a classic text book on Queensland's geology. Go sisters!!
Back in Sydney Margaret taught art, joined the Royal Art Society, opened a studio in Castlereagh St and exhibited her work at the Royal Art Society from 1894-1901.
NSW's National Art Gallery created an exhibition at Grafton Galleries in London in 1898. Expert art committees from four Australian states selected and vetted 371 works by the top Australian artists – famously Arthur Streeton, Frederick McCubbin, Charles Condor, Tom Roberts, Hans Heysen and Julian Ashton. Plus three works by Miss Flockton! Her images were noted for the first time by art-loving Britons!
Having established her reputation as a quality lithographer in Australia, Margaret wanted work that was more creative, more artistic, more personal. So she was delighted to work with Joseph Maiden in 1901, as mentioned. In the 27 years that middle aged Margaret Flockton (aged 40-67) spent as resident artist at the Herbarium of the Sydney Botanic Gardens, she produced nearly 1000 beautiful and detailed drawings of Australian specimens. Maiden’s key works such as Forest Flora of NSW (1904) and A Census of New South Wales Plants (1916) relied on Margaret’s gift as a scientific illustrator and botanic artist.
Her own booklet, Australian Wild Flowers, came out in 1904 and included 12 paintings previously only offered as posters. The timing was perfect - Australian Federation (1/1/1901) was still being celebrated exuberantly, via pictures of Australian cities, landscapes and unique flora and fauna. And Flockton's own reputation could be enhanced outside Sydney, once the booklet was sold in famous Melbourne bookshops like George Robertson and Co.
with the Garden Palace in the background
As you can see from the floral images beautifully reproduced in the book, the creativity flowed. Between working with various botanical collections and a stream of commercial work outside the Gardens, Margaret was a very happy woman. The National Gallery of NSW selected her work to be included in a display of Women’s Work in Melbourne's stunning Exhibition Building in 1907!
But important issues were raised in the book that questioned that happiness. Firstly there was a struggle between the females working for Joseph Henry Maiden for his scholarly and ?personal approval. That must have made life tricky for all the women. Secondly Margaret received a miserable salary before WW1. Even during the war years, when her salary slowly increased, she remained well below that of a man doing the same work. Thirdly in the eyes of the Public Service Board, Margaret’s advanced skills and knowledge still had not lifted her to the ranks of the professionals.
Joseph Henry Maiden (left) and Margaret Flockton (right)
After she died in 1953, Margaret Flockton’s name faded, even in the world of botanical scholarship. Then the Botanic Garden re-discovered and re-promoted her work. On International Women’s Day in March 2003 hundreds of elegant botanical studies in watercolour inspired the Garden’s illustrators and botanists. How appropriate that Margaret’s art works were seen in the Joseph Maiden Theatre.
Much has happened since that 2003 presentation. Flockton’s name appears on a very successful annual international award for excellence in scientific botanical illustration, sponsored by the Foundation and Friends of the Botanic Gardens. Thousands now attend the annual exhibition and award ceremony. Flockton would have been delighted when Lucy T Smith, an Australian who works for Kew Gardens as a botanical illustrator, won the 2014 Margaret Flockton Award.
Broad Leaf Wattle & Honey Flower,
Margaret Flockton: Fragrant Memory, 2016
The book cover design incorporates some of Margaret's illustrations
I am very grateful to Louise Wilson; her book goes a long way to change the belief that a spinster’s life was lonely and unproductive, even after the sexist Victorian era moved into the sacrifices of WW1. As it turned out with many successful women artists of the Victorian era and on, Flockton was single and childfree specifically so that no husband would limit the time and emotional commitment that she wanted to devote to her art career. But it wasn't easy.