We are saddened to hear of the recent death of New Zealand botanical illustrator and author, Audrey Eagle (1925–2022).
Eagle was a talented artist, writer and botanical collector, whose careful observation, skill and determination over many decades brought forth several books, each containing beautiful and botanically accurate illustrations and descriptions of Aotearoa New Zealand’s woody native plants (trees and shrubs).
Audrey Lily Brodey was born in Timaru in 1925, but left New Zealand with her family for her parents’ home country of England in 1933. She remained in Oxfordshire for the rest of her childhood and schooling, during which time her interest in observing and drawing nature and plants began.
Her tertiary studies during the Second World War included engineering and drafting, as well as art school, before she returned to New Zealand in 1949 shortly after marrying her husband, Harold Eagle.
Audrey Eagle clearly felt a very special attachment to her birth country, recounting, “I had to return to New Zealand, because there was something there I felt I had to do” (Eagle, 2006). Fortunately for us, that “something” was producing a series of botanical books beginning in 1975 and culminating in her masterpiece, Eagle’s Complete Trees and Shrubs of New Zealand.
Published in 2006 (and now out of print), this two-volume set contains her original colour illustrations and written descriptions of over 800 species, varieties and even as-yet-unnamed native trees and shrubs, all arranged following the latest plant taxonomic research and classification. In 2007, the book won the Montana Medal for Non-fiction and also won the Illustrative section of the Montana New Zealand Book Awards.
Producing the book took Eagle over half a century of methodical and meticulous collecting, observing, painting and writing. She formed friendships and collaborations with local and national botanists, who sent her plant specimens, taught her identification skills and kept her informed of the latest taxonomic changes and updates.
In 2013, Te Papa Press published The Essential Audrey Eagle, a new edition of 163 plates from Eagle’s Complete Trees and Shrubs, with a fresh introduction bringing new insights into the author’s life’s work.
Audrey Eagle was an active member of several botanical societies, went on their field trips and also made collections on her own trips or on family holidays. It is remarkable that all of her illustrations (bar one!) were painted from live material that she herself had seen or collected.
The key to Eagle’s success stemmed from a very simple idea: “I thought that if I looked at a plant long enough to paint it, I would remember both how it looked and what it was called” (Eagle, 2006). This elementary yet profound approach to her work feels refreshing and almost revolutionary in today’s society of phone cameras and short attention spans.
Eagle’s passion for the native plants of Aotearoa, and her lifelong dedication to know, paint, promote, and conserve them, were extraordinary. And it paid off – Audrey Eagle won numerous book awards, botanical awards, and even an honorary doctorate for her life’s work. Her original paintings are at the Alexander Turnbull Library, which means her works of botanical art will continue to be cared for and treasured for generations to come.
Resources for further reading and listening
- Eagle, Audrey L. 1975. Eagle’s Trees and Shrubs of New Zealand in Colour
- Eagle, Audrey L. 1982. Eagle’s Trees and Shrubs of New Zealand.
- Eagle, Audrey L. 2006. Eagle’s Complete Trees and Shrubs of New Zealand. Te Papa Press
- Eagle, Audrey L. 2013. The Essential Audrey Eagle: Botanical Art of New Zealand. Te Papa Press
- Friends of Te Papa. 2009. Meet Audrey Eagle, Botanical Artist. Podcast of live event
- Thomson, A.D. 2001. Mrs. Audrey Eagle, leading botanical artist and conservationist. New Zealand Botanical Society Newsletter 64:36-38. Available as a pdf.