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Scientific illustration has had a definite effect on field biology, as a recent book and print collection published by the American Museum of Natural History in New York ("Natural Histories: Extraordinary Rare Book Selections from the American Museum of Natural History," 2012) testifies. Starting with Maria Sybella Merian, many of these illustrators have been female and not a few of them have made contributions to science. Margaret Mee was no exception to this and it could be said that she was not only an excellent botanical illustrator, but a scientific explorer of the first order.

Margaret Ursla Brown was born west of London, England in May of 1909. As a young woman she was certainly adventurous. She moved to Germany in 1932 to find out what Hitler was all about!  She stayed just one step ahead of the Nazis, who were after her because she was too inquisitive, too left-wing, and too associated with Jews. Remarkably she managed to hang on until the mid 1930s before she went back to England. Her experiences in Germany made her even more left-wing politically and she became a union activist and with her first husband, Reginald Bruce Bartlett, was involved with the Communist Party in England. Unfortunately her first marriage was unhappy and ended in divorce. After this she trained as an artist, also in England, where she met her second husband, a commercial artist named Greville Mee, at the St. Martin School of Art. She became a student at the famous Camberwell School of Art in 1947.  

At Camberwell School of Art she became proficient in life-drawing and she easily could have become a portrait artist, but her love of the natural world and family ties (her sister Catherine had moved with her husband to São Paulo, Brazil and had become ill) caused her to make the trip to Brazil in 1952. Greville and Margaret thought they would stay for three or four years, but soon became entrenched, with Greville developing a career in commercial art and Margaret teaching art at the British school in São Paulo.  Soon Margaret had embarked on a career as an illustrator of living plants of the Amazon and she continued in that mode during over 35 years in Brazil!

Her first expedition was to Belém in 1956. By 1958 she was employed by the Instituto Botanica in São Paulo and became an expert on the vascular plants of the Amazon, finding and illustrating both known and new species from living material. Nine plants were named after her by professional botanists. She illustrated such basic works as "Orchidaceae Brasiliensis" and "The Bromeliads." Her accomplishments were recognized with membership in the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) and the Linnaean Society. She was honored in Brazil by a citizenship of Rio and the Ordem Nacional do Cruzeiro do Sul.  She produced 400 folios and a number of sketchbooks and diaries. In 1968 she published "Flowers of the Brazilian Forests" and began a campaign to save the Brazilian rain forest.

Ironically she died in a automobile accident in Leicestershire at the age of 79 after more than 35 years in Brazil and fifteen expeditions on the Amazon. Her paintings have, however, survived her, as well as her very real contributions to the botany of the Amazon. Most of her original work is now preserved in Kew Gardens, London.

I would very much recommend that anyone interested in Margaret Mee's work read the fascinating 1988 book of excerpts from her diaries, published just after her death.

Literature References:

Mee, Margaret. 1988. In Search of Flowers of the Amazon Forests. Nonesuch Expeditions, Woodbridge.

Internet References:

Artists Represented in the Smithsonian Catalog of Botanical Illustrations

Margaret Mee

Who Was Margaret Mee?

Originally posted to Desert Scientist on Thu Jan 10, 2013 at 02:53 PM PST.

Also republished by Backyard Science, SciTech, and Community Spotlight.

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