The Science and Splendor of Australian Butterflies: How Two 19th-Century Teenage Sisters’ Forgotten Paintings Led to a Triumph of Modern Conservation

Art by Helena and Harriet Scott from Australian Lepidoptera, 1864. Detail from Helena and Harriet Scotts art for Australian Lepidoptera.A generation prior to Ernst Haeckel coined the term ecology and a century prior to Rachel Carson made it a household word, the Scott sisters spent countless hours in the wilderness, studying the plants that sustained the bugs, seeking to comprehend and document the complex relationships of life.

Art by Helena and Harriet Scott from Australian Lepidoptera, 1864. Offered as a print and as a face mask. Children of the Bombay-born Australian entomologist Alexander Walker Scott, Helena and Harriet were hardly out of childhood when they began harmonizing their fathers clinical research studies with their shared artistic gift.

Art by Helena and Harriet Scott. (Australian Museum archives) In a period when clinical illustrators were typically uncredited in the works they highlighted, a period when hardly any women were published authors and of the few who were, many published under initials or male pseudonyms, Alexander Walker Scott made the strong and caring choice to print his daughters names in the books title itself, honoring them as partners. After a thirteen-year delay due to its exceptionally expensive production set on protecting the vibrancy and integrity of the original art, the two-volume Australian Lepidoptera and their improvements, drawn from the life by Harriet and Helena Scott was published in 1864.

Art by Helena and Harriet Scott from Australian Lepidoptera, 1864. Offered as a print and as a face mask. Art by Helena and Harriet Scott from Australian Lepidoptera, 1864.

A century after the self-taught German biologist and artist Maria Merian laid the structures of contemporary entomology with her stunning pictorial research studies of butterflies in Surinam and a century before Vladimir Nabokov used his glorious intellectual indiscrimination to advancing the field, the Australian sis Harriet and Helena Scott released their immense talent and interest on the natural history of butterflies and moths. A century after their death, their sensational, scrumptious paintings would furnish among the most heartening conservation accomplishments in history.

Art by Helena and Harriet Scott from Australian Lepidoptera, 1864. They might only manage to print a fraction of the 100 artworks Harriet and Helena, now in their early thirties, had actually painted as teenagers between 1846 and 1851, the book simply about bankrupted the Scotts without garnering the acknowledgment they had hoped for. Harriet wrote to a pal at the Australian Museum of natural history:

Even so, the income was insufficient for the sis to subsist on. They made the hard decision to offer their lifes work to the Australian Museum, of which their dad had actually been a trustee. The museum, where the delightful Scott collection now lives amongst the country-continents largest and earliest natural history and uncommon books archive, purchased it for ₤ 200, or around ₤ 25,000 today.

Art by Helena and Harriet Scott from Australian Lepidoptera, 1864. Offered as a print. (A part of proceeds advantages The Nature Conservancy.)A century after Harriet and Helena Scott returned their borrowed atoms to the web of life, more than 250,000 native trees have actually been replanted on their beloved Ash Island with the help of numerous volunteers, restoring the flood-plane jungle of their childhood. Ash Island is now a national park.

Art by Helena and Harriet Scott from Australian Lepidoptera, 1864.

A turning point for the preservation effort was the discovery of a vital document among the Scott sis papers: Helenas full list of the plants growing on Ash Island in 1862– a function of the sis understanding of ecology before the term existed. More than 240 types, ranging from trees to ferns to fungi, were each diligently catalogued as a complete phylogenetic listing.

Art by Helena and Harriet Scott from Australian Lepidoptera, 1864. Information from Helena and Harriet Scotts art for Australian Lepidoptera.A generation prior to Ernst Haeckel coined the term ecology and a century prior to Rachel Carson made it a family word, the Scott sis spent many hours in the wilderness, studying the plants that sustained the insects, seeking to understand and document the detailed relationships of life. Art by Helena and Harriet Scott from Australian Lepidoptera, 1864. After a thirteen-year delay due to its exceedingly expensive production bent on protecting the vibrancy and integrity of the initial art, the two-volume Australian Lepidoptera and their transformations, drawn from the life by Harriet and Helena Scott was published in 1864.

Helena and Harriet ScottShortly after the migration, Harriet and Helena were thrust into even much deeper dispossession and grief– their daddy passed away. Forced to lean on their talent not along their enthusiasms however against their survival, they began taking commissions embellishing wedding photos with illustrations of wildlife and plants, they painted industrial dinner plate sets, they made botanical illustrations for railway guides, they highlighted the first holiday cards including native Australian wildflowers. Scholars consider them Australias first paid woman artists.

Art by Helena and Harriet Scott from Australian Lepidoptera, 1864. Available as a print. (A portion of profits advantages The Nature Conservancy.)Art by Helena and Harriet Scott from Australian Lepidoptera, 1864. Readily available as a print. (A portion of earnings advantages The Nature Conservancy.)Art by Helena and Harriet Scott from Australian Lepidoptera, 1864. Offered as a print. (A portion of proceeds benefits The Nature Conservancy.)Australian Museum archivist, curator, and historian Vanessa Finney informs the Scott sis formerly unknown story in the consummately illustrated Transformations (public library). Enhance it with Peter Rabbit creator Beatrix Potters groundbreaking research studies and illustrations of mushrooms, which mycologists still utilize to determine species, trailblazing 18th-century artist Sarah Stones nature paintings of exotic, endangered, and extinct types, some of them belonging to Australia, and the remarkable story of her young contemporary Elizabeth Blackwell, who taught herself botanical illustration and produced the worlds first detailed encyclopedia of medicinal plants to conserve her partner from debtors prison.

Art by Helena and Harriet Scott from Australian Lepidoptera, 1864. Available as a print. (A part of profits advantages The Nature Conservancy.)For a century, the Scott sis work lay brown-papered in the underbelly of the museum, until manager Marion Ord rediscovered it with a gasp of awe and approached bringing it back to life in a book celebrating the museums bicentenary– a book on which conservationists started leaning to restore and rewild Ash Island, which industrial farming had left taken down of trees and bereft of pests in the twentieth century.

In a week or so we will leave this place poorer than we ever were in our lives, and I am and will be until poor Papa gets something to do, working to acquire a livelihood for us three. We offer up every short article that comes from us and if I can take my drawing materials I will think myself lucky. With these I wish to be able to make adequate to reside in an extremely little method for a time.