Dorothy English Paty, Gigantic Lily (Doryanthes excelsa), Newcastle (1835), from Wildflowers around Newcastle, New South Wales, 1833-1836. Nan Kivell Collection, National Library of Australia. On display, Treasures Gallery, National Library of Australia, Canberra. When Dorothy English Paty died aged only 31, just 19 days after giving birth to her son, Australia lost one of its least-known yet most accomplished colonial women artists.
Paty died in 1836, about five years after arriving in the young colony of NSW. Yet during this short time she managed to produce some of this country’s earliest botanical watercolours, which have miraculously survived in largely pristine condition.
Paty was one of numerous talented 19th-century British women who came to the new colony with their husbands. While in England, these women had learned to paint and draw, and once here they decided to use those skills to record their surroundings. They worked in sketchbooks rather than on canvas, and used pencil and watercolour rather than oils. They were generally unpaid, worked from the privacy of their homes, and normally only their families saw their paintings. It is not surprising the achievements of this gifted and neglected group of female artists were overlooked, according to Caroline Jordan in Picturesque Pursuits: Colonial Women Artists & the Amateur Tradition.
Paty was born in 1805 and grew up in Devon, England. She married her husband, John, a military officer 14 years her senior, in 1830. About one year later he was posted to Sydney, and then to Newcastle, a remote convict settlement, as the deputy assistant commissary general.
Once in Newcastle, Paty became a prolific painter of flowers. She even had friends and family scouring the countryside for specimens for her to paint. One family friend, the Reverend Wilton, was particularly helpful and collected native flora while he was going about his parish duties.
Paty was also fastidious with the recording of her work. Her paintings are identified botanically and dated, often with the collector’s name and where the plant was found, such as “found on the Maitland Road by Mr Wilton attached to the bark of a Swamp Oak”. Some of her annotations even hint at the competition among the women artists for procuring certain plants: “Mrs A. has it not.”
It is a mystery how two sketchbooks of Paty’s watercolours have survived the intervening years, but thanks to the generosity of Rex Nan Kivell, they are now in the collection of the National Library of Australia, Canberra. Titled Wildflowers around Newcastle, New South Wales, the albums feature nearly 60 local plants painted from 1833 to September 1836, one month before she died.
One of her watercolours is on display in the library’s Treasures Gallery and its curator, Nat Williams, shows me Gigantic Lily (Doryanthes excelsa), an ambitious and bold image in the way it spans two pages; the lily on one page and its gigantic stem on the other.
Williams describes it as “exquisite”. “The flowers are beautifully rendered with stunning attention to texture, colour and botanical detail,” he says.
As we examine the work, he points to the composition. “I think this is what makes her an interesting artist.
“Even though she is amateur taught, she is doing these adventurous compositions.
“She is not trained in the academy but she has this skill and passion for doing it.”
Williams says it is also evident from examining the dates in the sketchbooks that Paty was working hard after the earlier death of her daughter, Elizabeth, at the age of eight months in 1834. He believes Paty was filling up the book to cope with grief after her baby girl’s death.
“She was such a wonderfully talented woman, a very early colonial woman artist who had her life cut short, but it is an amazing story that these sketchbooks were produced in the wilds of Newcastle so early in the days of the colonial era.”
Watercolour, 28.1cm x 34.4cm