The Legacy of the Scott Sisters – Natural History Illustration at the UON

Helena Scott. (Courtesy of the Australian Museum)


Harriet Scott (Courtesy of the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales)


Women and Tertiary Education in the Hunter Region

Their names were Harriet (1830-1907) and Helena (1832-1910) Scott, artists and naturalists, who were educated and worked on Ash Island (now part of Kooragang Island) documenting Australian plants, animals and insects, under the scientific guidance of their father; entomologist and entrepreneur Alexander Walker Scott (1800-1883).

Unfortunately for Harriet and Helena, they were not able to study at a University, nor attain a degree in their time, even though their work was applauded in the press as world class even before it had been published.

Thankfully now, women can study at University, and can follow in the footsteps of these two STEMM pioneers at this University.


The Courses

Unfortunately, the Natural History Illustration (NHI) undergraduate and honours degrees at the UON  have now been disestablished. However, in their place, “from 2020, Illustration will be offered as a Major in the Bachelor of Visual Communication Design. With drawing and making at the heart of the program, students taking this new illustration major will work across a range of media, including 2D, 3D and moving image on projects ranging from narrative, 3D model-making and animation to book illustration, medical & scientific illustration, data visualisation and film.

Students will therefore still be able to take courses in Natural History Illustration as part of an outstanding visual communication program. This approach is intended to provide our graduates with an additional toolkit of digital skills that take advantage of emerging technologies and prepare them for the changing employment landscape.”

It has been confirmed “that the University’s commitment to the Natural History Illustration discipline remains strong. Natural History Illustration will continue to be taught to currently enrolled undergraduate students. The discipline will continue as a postgraduate research area and we are exploring offering a postgraduate degree (by coursework) in the future to better support this highly specialist area.”

However with only four Natural History Illustration courses being offered in the Visual Communications Degree some have questioned whether this would be enough to realistically build a specialised skill set.

Alexander Walter Scott From the collections of the State Library of New South Wales
[a755002 / PXA 1023, 204]
(Mitchell Library)
The Legacy

It is therefore important to reflect on the legacy of the Scott sisters, and those who followed them.

If we value our University’s commitment to the Hunter Region, then the Natural History Illustration courses represent an historical legacy of this region to the arts and sciences of the world.

And, especially to two young girls (in particular) who lived and worked as young scientists and artists, under the tutelage of their father from the 1840s to the 1860s, right here on Ash island in the Hunter Estuary.

The Natural History Illustration Course was the only course of its kind in an Australian University, and one of a handful worldwide, as well as those in environmental sciences and history.

This truly interdisciplinary course was testament to the continuing legacy of the superb work of the Scott Sisters and it is something uniquely valuable to this region. It also promoted a greater respect and awareness for the pre-colonial, indigenous natural environment and the knowledge and sustainable practices of the Aboriginal people who lived on the Islands for thousands of years prior to the arrival of European peoples.

But, the true value of the sisters’ work lies in what their work was able to achieve in rehabilitating the environment.


Ash Island in 1993. The former buildings of the Radar Station 131 middle left. Courtesy of Julia Brougham, Kooragang Wetland Rehabilitation Project (KWRP)



The True Value of the Scott Sisters Work

By 1993 Ash Island was a barren landscape, and looked much like Afghanistan after the reign of the Taliban.

At that time the Kooragang Wetland Rehabilitation Project took shape, and with their dedicated volunteers and University partners, actively rehabilitated the natural landscapes and ecosystems that had been destroyed over the past 200 years of industrial development.

They brought the butterflies back.

Scott’s Lepidoptera Plate No.1


Scott’s Lepidoptera Plate No.4

And how did they do that? By using the work of the Scott Sisters to identify and replant native flora back into the landscape, thus attracting the native fauna with it.

Therefore the scientific and artistic documentation work of the Scott Sisters were like an “ark”; the lepidoptera and the transformations they drew so skilfully were entombed within the pages, recording how these pupa incubated a new life and identity to emerge as new creatures in a new world.

Is this not a metaphor of what a University education should be able to do to everyone and everything?


Gionni Di Gravio
University Archivist & Chair, Hunter Living Histories


P.S. If Leonardo (or Leonarda) Da Vinci were alive today, this would be the nearest course at the UON he/she/they could enrol in that could satisfy some of the pansophic love of all the arts and sciences.



For further background see the following (and come and visit us to see their books in the flesh):


Welcoming the Scott Sisters Home to Newcastle


The Scott Sisters of Ash Island (By Jodi Vial – Work Integrated Learning Student in GLAMx Lab)


3D Virtual Hunter Project: The Scott’s Homestead on Ash Island


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