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.”