By Jodi Vial
It is 1846 and Harriet Scott is a girl of 16 when her father, Alexander Walker Scott, decides to move his family from Sydney to a home on Ash Island, in the Hunter River near Hexham. Harriet is accompanied by her sister Helena, 14, her stepsister Mary Ann and the girls’ mother, Harriet. The scene would be unrecognisable today, as industry had not yet staked its claim on the wilds of Ash Island. The homestead built by Walker Scott stood quite close to the river, at the end of a long jetty, and was surrounded by trees. As one visitor to the island wrote in a letter to The Colonist newspaper dated August 27, 1835:
“ … upon my visiting Ash Island, the estate of Walker Scott, Esq., I was quite astonished to see the quality of the soil, the very high state of cultivation, in which the land is, the elegant cottage and flower garden, together with upwards of 1000 of the choicest fruit trees …”
Any wonder that Harriet and Helena were able to devote such time and focus to the task of collecting, raising and illustrating specimens for their father’s planned book on Australian butterflies, moths and caterpillars. The end result, Australian Lepidoptera and their Transformations, is a testament to their instincts as scientists, naturalists and artists and a beautiful portrait of the place they called home. A rare copy resides in The University of Newcastle’s Cultural Collections.
Letters written by Harriet and Helena to family friend Edward Ramsay, who would eventually become curator of the Australian Museum, paint almost as brilliant a picture of Ash Island as the iridescent images captured forever in the pages of Walker Scott’s book. Helena wrote on October 22, 1862:
“How beautiful the native flowers are at this season! Our railway line is positively resplendent with the yellow dog-wood, blue campanula and scarlet bottlebrush. Somehow the scent of native flowers is always associated in my mind with the days when we were tiny little children, and Mamma used to take us, in the early morning, for long rambles in the fragrant brush (then) around the Botanical Gardens. It is wonderful how these early recollections, associated with the sight or scent of peculiar flowers, cling to us. Some wise man says it is because our olfactory organ is immediately connected with the brain, and one acts on the other – perhaps it is so.”
Of course the sisters’ artworks speak volumes about their surroundings and their dedication to the work they were carrying out, but to read their words is to know something of their personality, their daily lives and their sense of place. In a literary sense these are documents that represent a “presence-culture”, a term literary theorist Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht uses to describe the phenomenon of reading historical documents and envisioning the past as if it was our present. It is an intuitive process, to imagine life on Ash Island for Harriet and Helena, and more than once I have wished myself back there to a time when industrial development had not scarred the area and left it for dead. When I drive along the Pacific Highway and look out at the mangroves now, I see a white homestead surrounded by trees and imagine two young women immersed in their landscape, focused intently on the life they were gathering and documenting. Though when my ideas threaten to get too romantic, Harriet reminds me that life in the 1860s on Ash Island was not always picture-perfect. There was the heat:
“Ash Island. Hexham. 6th January 1866. My dear Edward, I can’t write much tonight for I am nearly half killed with the heat – today has been such a horrible day and the only thing that keeps me alive is the thought of a speedy gale from the South and a host of clouds laden with rainwater.”
And of course, the cold:
“Ash Island. Hexham. 29th July 1866. My dear Edward, If this letter is not written in my usual admirable handwriting I must beg you to believe it is because it is so horridly cold that my hands are half frozen. The winds are blowing like fury and I hear the frost is ever so many inches thick in the morning but this I can’t vouch for as I have never been up to see.”
Yet this sense of exposure to the elements is central to the story of the Scott sisters. Their lives were lived in a remarkable place, with full awareness of every tree, bird and insect that surrounded them. The recently retired head of Newcastle University’s Natural History Illustration school, Dr Anne Llewellyn, says this understanding was critical in the development of their skill as artists.
“You can’t create visuals without understanding the subject,” Dr Llewellyn says.
“They were living within the landscape, and their artwork expresses a deep understanding of that.”
These were not women kept in finely furnished drawing rooms, as one might expect from reading Jane Austen or the Bronte sisters. They were more likely to bring the outdoors in than to try shutting it out, and raised butterfly larvae in order to document its life stages and record its ultimate ‘transformation’. This was scientific labour, and the sisters’ incredibly detailed notebooks – part of the Australian Museum’s extensive collection of their work – are testament to their exhaustive efforts and knowledge in the field. From the letters, though, there is a greater sense of their impulse to nurture and care for these creatures as a vital part of the work. Harriet writes:
“Ash Island. 23rd February 1864. My dear Edward, Yours of the 19th and the packet of insects (aquatic larvae &c) have been duly received …. I have also had the “Hydrocampe” larvae under a high magnifying glass and drawn them in various ways, showing the bunches of filaments each containing a trachea on the sides, and making sundry observations on them which will prove useful when we describe them. I have had great difficulty in procuring the water lily for them, as the high freshes have overflowed the lowlands about here and killed all the plants, and we had to search inland for a considerable distance before we could get any. However I have the little fellows comfortably located in a wash hand basin with plenty of lily leaves and they seem very happy. Have you got any of the moths which they produce? Because if you have I think you had better put a couple in a letter for me and let me complete the series, as the leaves decompose so rapidly that I fear the chrysalids will suffer in their cocoons.”
When Edward Ramsay begins sending Harriet birds’ eggs to sketch for a planned book on the subject, she is most careful with the specimens but cannot avoid the occasional accidental breakage. She details such mishaps in her letters to him, in turn painting quite the picture of her workspace:
“My study is full of cats, mice and other vermin and I should not wonder the eggs will all be in chips by tomorrow morning.” (12th April 1866).
The bulk of the Scott sisters’ incredible artwork is owned by the Australian Museum and is a prized part of its collection. Its current exhibition, Transformations: The Art of the Scott Sisters, brings the beautiful images so painstakingly created by Harriet and Helena out of storage and into the light and the public realm. The sisters’ personal papers, including letters to Edward Ramsay and other scientific friends and acquaintances, are held by the State Library of NSW and many can be accessed online or by request in the Mitchell Library.
My own experience of visiting these two cultural institutions allowed me to touch the incredibly fragile letters written in Harriet’s hand, up until then only accessible via PDF files on a thumb drive. I was at once struck by the importance of preserving this history but also by a keen sense of dislocation at having to travel so far from its source in order to see it. Should we not keep these amazing women closer to our hearts? To our imagination? As A.W. Metcalfe wrote in his 1993 essay “Mud and Steel: The Imagination of Newcastle”, this city has long laboured under a masculine, earthbound energy that pervades all from the landscape to the communal psyche:
“Rational transcendence of nature is, then, a major theme of Newcastle. At different narrative levels, it involves human cultural transcendence of nature [and] generic male power over women.”
“The site of Newcastle is like earth on the second day of creation, before God separated the water and land. The landscape is the familiar panorama of the primeval swamp and the black lagoon. … It is the foundation on which Newcastle is constructed, partly by the forces of nature themselves and partly with human intervention.”
It is a revelation to know that as far back as the 1840s, Harriet and Helena Scott lived and thrived within a place deemed by both history and geography to be outside the bounds of the female. They were women of industry, undertaken on a daily basis over two decades, with beauty and nature at its heart. We as the present and future citizens of Newcastle must acknowledge and celebrate that, and only in so doing will we join with Harriet and Helena in realising our ultimate transformation.
Gumbrecht, Hans Ulrich. “Presence Achieved In Language (with special attention given to the presence of the past)”. History and Theory 45 (2006): 317–327.
Metcalfe, A.W. “Mud and Steel: The Imagination of Newcastle”. Labour History 64 (1993): 1-16.