Margaret Flockton – A Fragrant Memory by Louise Wilson

Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve

To celebrate the 200th birthday of the Sydney Botanic Gardens, Wakefield Press has produced a book that is a delight on many levels. It is a detailed tribute to Margaret Flockton’s work, her life, and her position in Australia’s art scene – and her courageous journey from England to forge her way as a single woman in colonial society in the latter part of the nineteenth century.

This is a book to treasure. The illustrations are beautifully reproduced and highlight the importance of the botanical artist who can depict every aspect of a living plant: buds, leaves, reproductive elements and, of course, colour. A photograph is a snapshot, not nearly so comprehensive.

Born on the 25th of September 1861, Margaret was one of three daughters. Together with Dolly and Phoebe, her childhood was marked by constant moving and facing the deaths of relatives who succumbed to the conditions of London in those days. Smog, sewage floating in the Thames, filthy streets took their toll.

Frank, their father, was a watercolour artist and exhibited and sold many works. Margaret’s talent was recognised and she attended three of southern England’s finest schools. She was fortunate enough to be accepted to the Central St. Martin’s College of Art and Design, regarded by many to be “the finest industrial art college in the world.”

Wanderlust was a family trait. Frank had earlier sailed to Australia in the days of the gold rush.

Margaret left England in 1888 when she was in her late twenties. She spent some time in Sydney, then Charters Towers. Upon returning to Sydney, she taught Art in Castlereagh St, but continued painting her watercolours.  Little is known of her friends and social life.

Unlike contemporaries like Arthur Streeton and Tom Roberts, she painted indoors rather than outdoors in the landscape. Photography posed a challenge with its ability to so faithfully depict flowers like roses.

She was innovative in her painting of wild flowers in their variety and exceptional beauty. This work is her signature statement as a fine artist.

Although some critics had a lack lustre response, public appreciation was much wider.

She was able to stage exhibitions of her wild flowers in rural areas, Bowral, Gunnedah, then later, Brisbane.  She was friends with leading artists of the day, Charles Conder, Hans Heysen and others. At a London exhibition her wild flowers outsold works from the Heidelberg school….

For the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria, one of her paintings was included in a volume presented to the monarch.  She was well established and her flowers, especially, were in demand.

Although Margaret remained unmarried, she was close to her family, particularly her nieces and nephews.

 A Fragrant Memory is not exclusively devoted to her art. It gives vivid and detailed insight into a gifted single woman’s plight in a male-dominated environment. Her realising the importance of celebrating our native flora was a major step in the fledging Australia overcoming its clinging to a view of the country through an English lens. This alone underlines her contribution to the Art of early twentieth century.

A Fragrant Memory is so very apt as a title for this book. Just as a flower’s scent delights and often lingers, so the work of this previously little-known artist continues to give pleasure to all who appreciate it.

Margaret Flockton – A Fragrant Memory

[2021]

by Louise Wilson

Wakefield Press

ISBN 978 174305 845 9

$65.00; 324pp

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