March is the month of women. With International Women's Day, The World of Women festival on London's Southbank and Mother's Day all packed in, the Museum shop is celebrating by bringing you some beautiful yet scientific gifts for Mother's Day. A great example is Images of Nature: Women Artists bringing recognition to women who have contributed and changed the course of natural history. So, let's take a closer look at some brilliant female pioneers.
The scientific revolution did little to bring a new age of women scientists. Still seen as a lesser form than men at the time, they were not afforded the right to education and were encouraged to be home schooled instead. Lepidopterist and diarist Margaret Elizabeth Fountaine (1862-1940) wrote:
The education of women was so shamelessly neglected, leaving the uninitiated female to commence life with all the yearnings of nature unexplained to her.
Very few women managed to make a name in their own right. Most had to make do with being assistants to their husbands, brothers or fathers and even then, their interest was seen as a hobby rather than a vocation. The introduction to Images of Nature: Women artists tells us:
Few women had the access to the advantageous opportunities provided by the scientific community, so for the majority any involvement in science was in an amateur capacity only.
This exclusion from the scientific field only made women more determined to become part of it. Jeanne Baret found a way with a ruse that would be at home in a Shakespearean plot: in 1766 she became credited with being the first woman to circumnavigate the globe after joining explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville's expedition as an assistant to the ship's naturalist while dressed as a man.
Although Beatrix Potter was famous for her children's books, she failed to gain scientific recognition for her groundbreaking study of fungi.
The importance of the artist.
Without the invention of photography, artists became very important in helping to document and label new species. The need to share information about new discoveries and theories meant that scientific illustration became an invaluable and much needed craft. The job brought with it the excitiment of travel and discovery.
The aim of scientific illustration is to give an accurate portrayal of its subject. Linneaus called for a more strigently accurate depiction showing the structures of the plant and fruit to allow for easy identification.
The 20th Century saw more women being hired to colour illustrations for text books and journals. It also saw their male counterparts earning a higher income for the same job along with gaining a higher accolade. The Museum holds many paintings signed by women whose history and heritage are impossible to trace.
Margaret Fountaine: despite her concerns for the lack of educational opportunities for women, she went on to become a lepidopterist.
The ladies who broke the mould.
Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717): She was an extraordinary person who went on a self funded, two year voyage into the unknown territory of the Dutch colony Surinam. It is her painting that is featured on the front cover of Images of Nature: Women Artists. Merian was an entomologist who studied the lifecycle of insects. Her work was often labelled as botanical due to the stunning accuracy and beauty of the detail she captured in the host plants of her subjects.
Marianne North (1830-1890): She was a lone traveller who collected many samples for Kew Gardens. Despite this, she never gained recognition for her work.
Margaret Fountaine (1862-1940): She collected over 22,000 butterflies. It was her wish that her notebooks, diaries and collection were embargoed until 15 April 1978; 100 years after she began lepidoptery.
Like many female artists, the creater of this painting, Mrs C W W Bewsher, went by her husband's, rather than her own, name.
Sarah Stone (1760-1844): An early zoological artist. Her artworks of exotic birds, many unknown to science at the time, remain important to this very day. Her work is thought to be the only surviving evidence of specimens once held in the Leverian Museum.
Jane Colden (1724-1766): Possibly the first American-born female botanist. She collected and documented plants in New York. Her accompanying notes to her line drawings show the medicinal uses of plants and method of administration favored by local people.
Grace Edwards (fl.1875-1926): Unofficially employed by the Museum's entomology department to prepare illustrations and models of specimens. She produced some remarkable illustrations of African bloodsucking flies which show the skill needed to be a scientific illustrator.