Pub­lic works

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Bron­wyn Wat­son

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

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