In 2020, we acquired an 1897 watercolour painting by Margaret Stoddart that had been given the title Yellow blossom and rosemary by the cataloguers. But what are those blossoms, really? And is that rosemary in the vase, or something else?
Here, Curator of Historical Art Rebecca Rice unpacks the painting and suggests it could be somewhat pricklier than it first appears.
Yellow blossom and rosemary?
Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time researching 19th-century female botanical artists. While we have good holdings of some of these artists in our collection, such as Sarah Featon, who published the groundbreaking Art Album of New Zealand Flora in 1889. But others are less well represented.
So when this painting, Yellow blossom and rosemary, by Margaret Stoddart came up at auction last year, it caught my eye.
My interest was further piqued when one of my colleagues suggested that those yellow blossoms looked suspiciously like gorse. Here was a painting worth considering for the national collection.
In praise of gorse
While many consider gorse, or Ulex europaeus, a noxious weed, the vibrancy of gorse flowers in full bloom has a long history of inspiring poets and writers.
In 1841 English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning celebrated the virtues of the plant in Lessons from the gorse: 1
Mountain gorses, ever-golden,
Cankered not the whole year long!
Do ye teach us to be strong,
Howsoever pricked and holden
Like your thorny blooms, and so
Trodden on by rain and snow,
Up the hill-side of this life, as bleak as where ye grow?
Over 130 years later New Zealander Ian Wedde included a chronology of yellow blooms in his poem, ‘Those Others’: 2
these hills are dark,
wooded, sometimes alight
with yellow flowers,
a dogged clasping
of gorse, barberry, kowhai, broom, lupin, ragwort.
The road follows their perfumes.
But gorse as a subject for art? This is a much less common trope, especially in the hands of painters, and especially in Aotearoa New Zealand, where flower painters are more concerned with the picturesque than the prickly.
Introducing Margaret Stoddart
Stoddart was born in 1865, the second daughter of Mark Pringle Stoddart and Anna Barbara Schjött, early settlers and landowners in Canterbury.
In 1852 Mark Stoddart had purchased land at the headland of Te Waipapa, or Diamond Harbour. This was where he made his home, cultivating a garden and farm, and where Margaret grew up, surrounded by nature.
Stoddart’s family placed a high value on art and education and Margaret was one of the first pupils at Canterbury School of Art when it opened in 1882.
There, the students took lessons focused on perspective, freehand and model drawing, and spent Friday mornings studying botanical art. This reflected the relevance of this study both to design, and to the current interest in picturing and recording the natural world.
By 1897, when Margaret Stoddart painted Yellow blossoms and rosemary (let’s call it this for now), she was well established as New Zealand’s leading flower painter.3
The acclimatised landscape
Along with studying botanical painting at art school, Stoddart’s love of the natural environment was encouraged through her family and their social circles.
She was a keen tramper, and undertook a number of expeditions with friends and family around Banks Peninsula and the Southern Alps, collecting specimens of native plants and sketching the landscape.
Some of these trips were documented in an album, now cared for at Canterbury Museum, which features photographs set amongst watercolour drawings by Stoddart.
Stoddart’s father was also a keen naturalist and amateur botanist. Through him, she was connected to some of the most notable scientists in the colony.
These included Thomas Henry Potts, also resident at Governor’s Bay, who was a dedicated ornithologist, and Julius von Haast, first Director of the Canterbury Museum.
All three men were also founding members of the Canterbury Acclimatisation Society established in 1864, and dedicated to the ‘introduction, acclimatisation and domestication of all innocuous animals, birds, fishes, insects and vegetables, whether useful or ornamental’.4
The definition of ‘innocuous’ was, of course, at the discretion of the colonists.
Gorse was already well established by the time such societies were set up. It was a familiar and useful plant that had been brought to Aotearoa New Zealand by the very earliest European settlers.
From the 1850s gorse was encouraged as a natural windbreak and ‘live’ fencing material, crucial to the transformation of whenua (land), into a ‘productive’ landscape.
Its use was particularly widespread in Canterbury, where there was little timber or wire available for ‘dead’ fences.
But by 1864, many already considered gorse a weed, its acclimatisation to the conditions in New Zealand having been far too successful. While its usefulness in agriculture was acknowledged, elsewhere it was regarded as a weed and a major fire hazard.
Potts is interesting here, for as New Zealand’s earliest conservationist, he was an advocate for the protection of native forests, and also for native birds.
But he had not fully rationalised the concept that the destruction of one lead to the demise of the other. And in spite of his commitment to the preservation of indigenous flora and fauna, he was also invested in exotic species.5
In an article published in 1878 titled ‘On hedge plants’ he considered gorse valuable, but only when properly managed.6
Debates over the status of gorse raged throughout the late nineteenth century, with farmers seeking weed control legislation. However in many places, particularly in Canterbury, it remained the best hedging material, and the emphasis shifted towards educating farmers about how best to plant and manage it.
It’s gorse, of course
In light of these debates, which would have been aired in the circles Margaret’s father moved in, the subject of her painting is interesting.
For while it has been given the title Yellow blossom and rosemary, Te Papa’s botanists confirmed my colleague’s suspicion, and have identified the plant as gorse.
One wrote ‘it’s almost certainly gorse. The prickly leaves are showing just above the vase. I can’t see anything looking like rosemary’.
So we might think of re-titling this painting Gorse blossoms. This is a very unusual subject for an artist in 1890s New Zealand, even for Stoddart, who more typically painted New Zealand’s native flora or abundant blooms of roses. Julie King counted 39 paintings of roses exhibited by Stoddart between 1883 and 1899!
I have not been able to find any record of the painting recently acquired by Te Papa in either exhibition catalogues or newspaper reviews from the late nineteenth century.
However, in 1897, the same year Gorse blossoms was painted, Stoddart exhibited two equally curious paintings, one watercolour and one oil, titled Native Lumin and Wild Irishman and Wild Irishman, respectively.7
‘Wild Irishman’ is the common name for matagouri, a plant that, like gorse, thrives in poor conditions, and which, like gorse, has prickly thorns (you can see studies of matagouri in the page spread from Stoddart’s album above).
Newspaper reviewers praised her capable treatment of ‘that most unartistic of plants’.8 So while I haven’t found our ‘gorse’ painting, this provides evidence that Stoddart was paying attention to less picturesque plants, of both endemic and exotic origins at this time.
Gorse blossoms is a confident watercolour. It demonstrates Stoddart’s command of her medium, as well as her talent for painting flowers. She presents the vibrant golden ‘blossoms’ in a lush, asymmetrical composition, tumbling out of the vase and dropping buds.
Here, she demonstrates a freer handling than she employed in her botanical studies. This is suggestive of a shift towards a more painterly approach, which she would further develop during her time in Europe from 1898 to 1906.
This painting also confirms the description of her work by her peers, fellow artists James Shelley and Sydney Thompson, in her obituary.
They noted that although she excelled at flower painting, there was ‘a sterner reality about the painting than the fragile flowers themselves possessed’. There was, they concluded, ‘nothing fragile about Miss Stoddart, but rather a sort of tender violence’.9
A nursery for natives
The apparently incompatible qualities embodied in that description of Stoddart as possessing a ‘tender violence’ also seem a fitting description for Gorse blossoms, for the ambiguous status of gorse continues through to this day.
While many consider it a noxious weed, exerting a violent impact on the landscape, others have paid attention to its virtues, particularly its potential as a nursery plant of young native flora – a tender quality if you like.
This potential rests on the facts that gorse fixes nitrogen – improving the soil quality, and provides stable wind, moisture, and temperature conditions at ground level, allowing native plants to grow.
While this regeneration doesn’t happen overnight, it does happen, and it requires that humans do one of the things they find most difficult – leave the gorse alone.
Interestingly, one of the most successful applications of this ‘minimal interference’ approach is at Hinewai Reserve on the Banks Peninsula, just around the corner from the land Stoddart grew up on at Te Waipapi, or Diamond Harbour.10
So what can we make of Stoddart choosing gorse as a subject for her painting? On the one hand, we could conclude that she saw the plant in a similar vein as Browning, admiring its strength, beauty, and wisdom. But I’d like to suggest another reading, one that reflects the very controversial status of gorse throughout New Zealand’s history.
It is possible that by the 1890s Stoddart was aware of the ambivalence towards gorse. By painting it in the manner of a cut bloom, arranged in a vase, she may be acknowledging the complex status of this plant, ironically elevating it to the same status as a lily or a rose.
Find out more about Sarah Featon on Collections Online
- Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Lessons from the gorse, first printed in the Athenœum, October 23, 1841. See https://www.poetrynook.com/poem/lessons-gorse
- Ian Wedde, ‘Those others’, from Spells for coming out, Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1977, pp. 43-45. http://www.nzepc.auckland.ac.nz/authors/wedde/others.asp
- For a comprehensive overview of Stoddart’s life and career see Julie King, Flowers into landscape: Margaret Stoddart 1865-1934, Christchurch: Hazard Press, 1997.
- M. McDowall, Gamekeepers for the Nation: The Story of New Zealand’s Acclimatisation Societies 1861-1990, Christchurch, 1994.
- For an overview of Pott’s contribution to the understanding and protection of New Zealand’s natural environment see Paul Star, ‘Regarding New Zealand’s environment: The anxieties of Thomas Potts, c. 1868-88’, in International Review of Environmental History, volume 3, issue 1, 2017.
- Michael L. S. Bagge, ‘Valuable Ally or Invading Army?: The ambivalence of gorse in New Zealand, 1835-1900’, in https://www.environmentalhistory-au-nz.org/2014/03/valuable-ally-or-invading-army-the-ambivalence-of-gorse-in-new-zealand-1835-1900/
- Catalogue for Canterbury Society of Arts Eighteenth Annual Exhibition, 1898, s 67 and 238, p. 13 and 17. https://christchurchcitylibraries.com/Heritage/Publications/Art/CanterburySocietyofArts/pdfs/Catalogue-1898.pdf. These paintings were also exhibited in Wellington in September 1897, and Timaru in May 1898.
- ‘The Art Society’s Exhibition. Final Notice’, Evening Post, 14 September 1897, p. 2.
- James Shelly and Sydney Thompson, quoted in Julie King, Flowers into landscape: Margaret Stoddart 1865-1934, Christchurch: Robert McDougall Art Gallery, 1998, p. 17.
- Hinewai Reserve, About Hinewai – Hinewai Reserve
Lovely piece Rebecca