Draw­ing flow­ers


The mys­tery of Ed­ward Skeats

Not much is known about Ed­ward Miall Skeats. A na­tive of Eng­land, he came to New Mex­ico in 1890 at the re­quest of Charles B. Eddy — for whom Eddy County is named — to help lo­cate sites for wa­ter wells in Carls­bad. But Skeats — an en­gi­neer, a chemist, and a ge­ol­o­gist — is known to­day, and barely at that, for his wa­ter­color il­lus­tra­tions of re­gional plant life in the south­east­ern end of the state. Skeats left be­hind a port­fo­lio of 59 botan­i­cal draw­ings, 26 of which are on view at the Univer­sity of New Mex­ico Art Mu­seum in Record­ing South­ern New Mex­ico: The Botan­i­cal Draw­ings of Ed­ward Skeats, his first one-per­son show in the decades since his death in 1928.

The draw­ings, while lit­tle seen, were among the first gifts to the mu­seum in its early years. “In 1966, his son Arthur gave the mu­seum these draw­ings,” said UNM art his­tory pro­fes­sor Joyce Sz­abo, who cu­rated the ex­hibit. “They’re wa­ter­color and ink. They have never been on ex­hibit, ex­cept for a hand­ful here and there, and a few at the Har­wood in Taos.” Skeats made del­i­cate de­pic­tions of wild­flow­ers, cacti, grasses, and other forms of plant life, ren­der­ing them with an eye to­ward re­al­ism and la­bel­ing them by hand in a el­e­gant script. But even with this show, lit­tle new in­for­ma­tion on Skeats has come to light. “Even check­ing with peo­ple in South­east­ern New Mex­ico, they didn’t re­ally know any­thing,” Sz­abo said. “But there was an old news­pa­per men­tion of an English­man us­ing a Ouija board to look for wa­ter. A dows­ing rod would have been a far bet­ter tool.”

Ac­cord­ing to his­to­rian Clarence Alan McGrew, writ­ing in 1922 in City of San Diego and San Diego County: The Birth­place of Cal­i­for­nia, Vol­ume 2, Skeats was born in Croy­don, Eng­land, in 1858, the son of Her­bert S. Skeats, who wrote A His­tory of the Free Churches of Eng­land: From A.D. 1688-A.D. 1851, pub­lished in Lon­don in 1869. McGrew’s bi­og­ra­phy of Skeats is brief. He was ed­u­cated at Lon­don Univer­sity and em­barked on a ca­reer as a civil en­gi­neer, and most of his ac­com­plish­ments were in the realm of sci­ence. For sev­eral years, he worked in Buenos Aires on wa­ter and sewage projects as well as as­say­ing ores. In New Mex­ico, he worked on ir­ri­ga­tion projects in the Pe­cos Val­ley and con­tin­ued his own re­search on ores in a lab in Carls­bad. He was em­ployed as a chemist for sev­eral South­west­ern rail­way com­pa­nies and was, for a time,

pres­i­dent of the El Paso Pure Wa­ter Com­pany. McGrew writes that Skeats is “au­thor of one of the best oil maps of South­west­ern Texas.” He was also, ac­cord­ing to McGrew, an au­thor­ity on the min­eral mag­ne­site. But no men­tion is made of his artis­tic en­deav­ors in McGrew’s bi­o­graph­i­cal sketch. It’s pos­si­ble that Skeats was self-taught as a wa­ter­col­orist, a dif­fi­cult medium to mas­ter. Ac­cord­ing to Sz­abo, he moved to Cal­i­for­nia in 1904 and con­tin­ued work­ing as a ge­ol­o­gist and chemist.

Skeats fol­lowed a tra­di­tion of botan­i­cal illustration, which was of­ten done us­ing wa­ter­col­ors, with the sub­ject iden­ti­fied ac­cord­ing to tax­on­omy. The art of the botan­i­cal il­lus­tra­tor is in­tended to aid in the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of species. There are cer­tainly bet­ter ex­am­ples of botan­i­cal art from the late 19th and early 20th cen­turies. How­ever, Skeats’ in­ter­est was in the name of sci­ence, and fin­ished com­po­si­tions, for art’s sake, were not his prime ob­jec­tive. Ac­cord­ing to Lucy Perera-Adams, for­mer ed­u­ca­tion cu­ra­tor at the Har­wood Mu­seum, when Skeats was work­ing out of El Paso, he used his knowl­edge of the nat­u­ral sciences for many projects, in­clud­ing prospect­ing for potash and deter­min­ing the proper time for plant­ing sugar beets to in­crease yields. His il­lus­tra­tions of wild­flow­ers grew out of that project. His de­pic­tions were made as stud­ies, but as far as Sz­abo is aware, none of the ex­am­ples on view were pub­lished in his life­time. His rel­a­tive anonymity makes him an ideal can­di­date for a grad­u­ate the­sis or dis­ser­ta­tion. “He cre­ated very beau­ti­ful and re­ally de­tailed draw­ings. He was in­ter­ested in ex­ac­ti­tude,” Sz­abo said.

The ti­tles of Skeats’ works use com­mon names in con­junc­tion with the nomen­cla­ture of bi­ol­ogy, iden­ti­fy­ing botan­i­cals by fam­ily such as milk­weed (As­cle­pi­adaceae), evening prim­rose (Ona­grareae), and the grass fam­ily (Gramineae). “In the late 19th, early 20th cen­turies, botanists were in­ter­ested in this kind of rep­re­sen­ta­tion,” Sz­abo said. “Of course, you would record what was im­por­tant about the plant to be able to iden­tify it.” Skeats’ 1897 illustration The Prim­rose Fam­ily, for ex­am­ple, along with his other draw­ings, num­bers and iden­ti­fies sev­eral species within that par­tic­u­lar fam­ily. “Botan­i­cal draw­ings like these were in and out of fa­vor. By the time Skeats was do­ing these, some­times botan­i­cal texts were pub­lished in that time pe­riod with­out any il­lus­tra­tions at all. But then, in the 20th cen­tury, they were again il­lus­trated,” she said.

The mu­seum is show­ing Skeats’ works, along with a few ac­tual plant spec­i­mens bor­rowed from the herbar­ium at the univer­sity’s Mu­seum of South­west­ern Bi­ol­ogy for the sake of com­par­i­son. Herbar­ium cu­ra­tor Ti­mothy Lowrey up­dated some of the iden­ti­fi­ca­tions for the ob­ject la­bels be­cause the sci­en­tific names have changed over time. “One of our col­lec­tions as­so­ci­ates, Mariah Car­rillo, also looked for more com­mon names for the plants,” Sz­abo said. In ad­di­tion, the herbar­ium loaned the art mu­seum a plant press sim­i­lar to what a 19th-cen­tury bi­ol­o­gist would take out into the field when col­lect­ing. The de­vice has a top and bot­tom board, be­tween which are lay­ers of cor­ru­gated card­board that sep­a­rate the spec­i­mens from one another. Ab­sorbent pa­per was used to col­lect the mois­ture from the plants as they dried. The press is a sim­ple tool with straps for cinch­ing down the boards while press­ing.

Skeats’ draw­ings do not rep­re­sent his sub­jects within the con­text of habi­tat. There are no sur­round­ing land­scape de­tails, which is a con­ven­tion in botan­i­cal illustration for the sake of sci­ence, and prob­a­bly, too, to leave room for no­ta­tion. But his il­lus­tra­tions de­picted plant spec­i­mens in full, from the roots up. “Usu­ally, you would try for some root struc­ture as well as de­fin­i­tive flow­ers, seeds, and leaves,” Sz­abo said. “He cer­tainly had a good eye. Botan­i­cal draw­ings are dif­fer­ent from a work of art that’s in­ten­tion­ally made as a fin­ished art­work, like a Baroque still life. Not that these aren’t works of art. That’s why they’re here.”

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