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In 1889 Sarah Featon and her husband Edward Featon published The Art Album of New Zealand Flora, in which they sought to dispute the 'mistaken notion that New Zealand is peculiarly destitute of native flowers'. While the title emphasises the artistic nature of their enterprise, in the preface they describe the choice they made between selecting a handful of the 'best and most showy representatives of indigenous flowers' and publishing them in a 'haphazard manner, with just a soupcon of descriptive matter to serve as a garnish' or to 'accept the responsibility of putting forth a publication of a popular character based on scientific and systematic principles'. They chose the latter path, ensuring that the album had both popular appeal while being firmly grounded in solid science.
This was achieved both through Sarah's illustrations and Edward's lively text. Based in Gisborne, Sarah's drawings were made from specimens sourced far and wide (many of which were collected by women who were acknowledged in the final text). Their project was supported by prominent early settler and expert on botany, William Colenso as well as Thomas Kirk. The accompanying text drew on Hooker's Flora for the botanical classification, accentuated by Edward's enthusiastic and occasionally verbose information about potential uses of the plant (or its wood) as well as indigenous knowledge. For example, in the description of the Pohutukawa, he writes 'the juice of the inner bark is said to possess a medicinal virtue, and the Maoris are accustomed to use it to allay inflammation'. The general nature of the Art Album appealed to reviewers and the public alike, and the publication was deemed likely to be a 'most valuable acquisition to any art collection, library, or drawing room'. It was praised as a 'great colonial work of art'. One reviewer expressed 'surprise that such an artistic, correct, and beautiful work should have been wholly produced in New Zealand'. Indeed, it was so prized that a copy, enclosed in a casket of New Zealand wood, was gifted to Queen Victoria for her Diamond Jubilee in 1897.
The Featons collaborated with the Wellington firm Bock & Cousins to publish the first fully coloured art book in New Zealand, using the relatively new medium of chromolithography, which almost bankrupted the firm. The transition from watercolour to colour lithograph involved compromise, and the result in many of Featon's works is an occasionally garish rendering of her exquisite watercolours.
134 of Sarah Featon's original watercolours for the Art Album of New Zealand Flora were purchased for the Dominion Museum in 1919. At that time, Featon was widowed and desperately short of funds. The '£150 she was eventually reimbursed for her collection likely only went a short way to ease the future finances of her family.
The Art Album comprised 40 colour plates, including a magnificent frontispiece. An intended second volume was never published.
Dr Rebecca Rice, March 2019
Edward and Sarah Featon, Art Album of New Zealand Flora, Wellington: Bock and Cousins, 1888.
Bee Dawson, Lady painters: the flower painters of early New Zealand, Auckland: Penguin Books, 1999.
' Art Album of New Zealand Flora', Otago Daily Times, supplement, 18 February 1890, p. 2.
New Zealand Times, 7 December 1887, p. 4
' Art album of New Zealand flora', The Observer, 18 May 1889, p. 4.
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