Celebrating Sarah Featon

A new exhibition and book shine a spotlight on one of our leading botanical artists, whose name and achievements since her death in 1927 have largely been forgotten by the wider world.  

Watercolourist Sarah Featon, who undertook her most well-known work in the 19th century, is the focus of a major new exhibition at Tairāwhiti Museum – Colours Deluxe: The Art Album of Sarah and Edward Featon of Gisborne

The Art Album of New Zealand Flora.  Collection Tairāwhiti Museum (1995-112-3).

Gisborne historian Jean Johnston, who has written a book to accompany the show and who worked with museum director Eloise Wallace on exhibition research, says she too had never heard of Sarah who was at one time a local heroine until, when researching another book, coming across a reference to The Art Album of New Zealand Flora saying that a delegation led by suffragist Margaret Sievwright asked Premier Richard Seddon when he visited Gisborne in 1894 for a copy of the Featons book to be put in every New Zealand school.

“So I went to Gisborne Library to see their copy of the book and realised what a treasure it is,” says Jean. “When I looked at old copies of the Poverty Bay Herald, I realised how proud Gisborne was of them. It was very touching to read.”

Sarah and her husband Edward were both born in England, migrated separately and married in New Zealand before moving to Gisborne in 1875. Their crowning glory was the 1889 publication of The Art Album, using 40 of Sarah’s paintings of flowering plants and Edward’s descriptions, the couple wanting to dispel ‘the mistaken notion that New Zealand is particularly destitute of native flowers’.

Oleari angustifolia, watercolour by Sarah Featon, purchased 1919. Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (1992-0035-2277/24).

The book was so highly regarded that in 1897, on behalf of the citizens of Gisborne, Louisa Seddon, wife of the New Zealand Premier, presented a copy to Queen Victoria to mark her diamond jubilee. The special edition had a new frontispiece painted by Sarah and came in a wooden box commissioned by Gisborne mayor J Townley, himself a cabinet-maker. The presentation copy then went on display in London with other jubilee gifts.

This isn’t the first showing of Sarah’s watercolours – 18 were exhibited at Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa in 2019, an event that coincided with the release of a set of NZ Post stamps featuring her artwork – but it is the largest with 28 of Sarah’s botanical studies on show until June 25, 2023. Some, held by the family, have not been on public display before. Colours Deluxe also includes three copies of the Album, letters, original print blocks and family memorabilia.

Untangling Sarah’s life hasn’t been easy, says Jean, although she has been able to correct some published ‘facts’, including discovering Sarah’s birth year to be 1847. “There’s also been confusion around the fact that both her parents, who weren’t related to one another, had the surname of Porter.”

No images of Sarah and Edward had been known, but Jean was delighted to find photographs in family hands and was, at long last, able to put faces to the names and to have the photos in the exhibition.

“Edward was certainly a man about town in Gisborne,” Jean says, “and much more is known about him but I’ve tried to dispel the notion that he was the dominant partner – they worked very much as a team and appreciated each other’s skills. Sarah was completely au fait with botanical terms and corresponded with eminent botanists of the day, such as John Buchanan.

“The Featons purchased plant specimens from other collectors or plant nurseries, all sent to their home in Gisborne, even from some of the sub-Antarctic islands. In one letter to John Buchanan, who was planning a trip to Stewart Island, Sarah asked him to find someone who might post specimens to her, while in another letter she describes receiving a box from the island that had taken just 10 days to arrive, and remarking on how well packed everything was.”

Colensoa physaloides (koru) by Sarah Featon. Watercolour, purchased 1919. Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (1992-0035-2277/4).

In 1919 Sarah wrote to the ‘Nature Notes’ column of the NZ Herald about the rare plant Colensoa physaloides (koru). It was first brought under my notice by Mr [William] Colenso himself. He sent me a lithographed copy of a drawing from a specimen grown in Kew Garden. … Later, 25 or 30 years ago, I obtained a specimen from beyond the Bay of Islands, paying 16s for it. It was very rare then, but I believe that specimens were growing on the Great Barrier Island. My specimen had a cluster of beautiful mauve leaves. I was surprised to learn that it had been found in this district. It must have been before Bishop [Leonard] Williams’ time, as he greatly helped me in producing my book, and if he had known of it here, he would have told me.

The same year, widowed for a decade and apparently in need of money, Sarah sold her collection of 134 paintings for £150 to what is now Te Papa Tongarewa. “It might seem like a sad ending,” Jean says, “but she was very purposeful over a long period in keeping the collection together and intact.”

This article first appeared in NZ Gardener magazine and is published here with permission. It has been amended slightly.

Summer solstice activies in Aotearoa

Picked up an unusual volume at a recent book fair, Celebrating the Southern Seasons: Rituals for Aotearoa by Juliet Batten (Tandem Press, 1995) and, since it’s the summer solstice in New Zealand, I thought I’d share some of the information from that section as an alternative to Christmas tinsel and jolly, fat blokes with white beards.

Not a kaka, but a bellbird amid flax flowers (Phormium tenax)  at Lake Manapouri. Photo: Sandra Simpson

By now [Maori] people … went out to gather honey, known as wai korari, from flax flowers, a great delicacy in a land without honey beesThe nectar was said to ebb and flow in the flowers in unison with the tide; at low tide it receded but at a spring tide it overflowed the edges of the flowerThe flowers would be picked at full tide and gently tapped on the sides of a gourd so the nectar would flow out. It was used for soaking and flavouring fern root, and in the South Island was mixed with para ti, the cabbage tree ‘sago’ (made from its roots and stems). An added bonus was that the kaka was now growing fat on flax honey, and could be caught for good eating.

In a footnote the author explains that while New Zealand has native bees, they are solitary and do not swarm like Euopean honeybees so don’t provide a collection point for honey.

Another summer activity was the gathering of raupo pollen. In the early morning or late evening, when the pollen was moister and less likely to blow away, a large group of adults and children would go down to the swamps. After picking, they would gently shake the flowering spikes into bark vessels to collect the fine, fluffy powder. The yellow pungapunga or pua (pollen) had a light, sweetish taste and was mixed with water or gently steamed to make gingerbread-like cakes.

The male flower at the top and the female seed-head beneath on a raupo stem (Typha orientalis). Photo: Harry Rose, via Wikipedia

The NZ Herb Federation clarifies that it’s the male flowers at the top of the spike that have the pollen, while the female spike develops below on the same stem and is tightly packed seeds with dense parachute hairs (pappus) facing outwards, to produce the distinctive velvety chocolate-brown seed head. Read more here. These downy seeds could be used to light a fire, while early Europeans also used them for stuffing pillows and mattresses.

In full bloom

Miss Mandy is who Amanda Gilbertson would be, she says, if she didn’t have a husband or children. And yet Amanda’s own life has become just as exciting as that of her pink-haired, gin-drinking alter ego!

In 2020, for instance, she “accidentally” purchased a lifestyle block in Pyes Pa on the outskirts of Tauranga, along with 2,500 calla lily bulbs and three caravans, and at the tail end of 2020 started Miss Mandy’s Flower Emporium, a pick-your-own flower farm on the outskirts of Tauranga. It’s about as far from Amanda’s previous corporate life as you can get.

Miss Mandy in one of her flower sheds. Photo: Sandra Simpson

“We didn’t move here with a plan,” she says. “The property had been a commercial orchid operation but it was going to cost as much to demolish the sheds as it was to renovate them so we started to think …”

Inspired by a venture she saw online, Amanda prepared a business plan to convince husband Roger. “The Facebook page I saw had 9,000 likes which seemed to me to validate the idea. We’re in a tourism area, not far from town and this combines a lot of our skills. But ‘suck it and see’ is our daily mantra.”

Roger, “an active relaxer”, renovated the buildings, and their two teenage sons provide muscle as needed. “The inputs and learning were in 2020, we took the feedback and reviewed after the season was over in 2021.”

A pink flower in the Cosmos Sea Shells range. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Her parents find her career pivot from corporate to compost more than a bit amusing. “They had Top Trees Nursery in Clive, and were the first to do a mop top, and Mum’s good at marketing. So here I am, at long last, fulfilling my genetic destiny.”

Plants flowering for summer included cosmos, strawflowers, sweet peas, zinnias, hydrangeas, dahlias, snapdragons, alstroemerias and some callas, with a bed of nasturtiums and marigolds for children to enjoy.

Although the property has three rainwater tanks and a stream to draw on, Amanda says a long dry spell in late January and into February of 2021, her first year in business, was tough. “What have I learned? That hydrangeas are water intensive,” she laughs. “We’ll be doing fewer of them in the future.” The ones that stay have had an orchid drip-irrigation system fitted, while the ones that came out have gone into her garden.

A bed of snapdragons. Photo: Sandra Simpson

“I learned that there are snapdragons that will do well in the heat – unfortunately, they weren’t the ones I planted. We’re quite hot and sheltered so finding out about heat-tolerant snapdragons means I can try again next summer.

“And I have totally fallen in love with zinnias. I didn’t know they were so amazing.”

For the first season everything was grown in raised beds or, for the hydrangeas, in plastic grow bags. Then she had an idea to dig up a grassed area beside a growing shed and plant shorter, pollenless sunflowers in a range of colours.

“Oh yes, I’m going to expand. More perennials and beds of everlasting flowers such as statice, pincushion flowers [Scabiosa] and tall verbena. And I quickly learned to put succession planting into practice.”

Growing everything in a commercial garden mix for her first season gave Amanda time to build up a mulch heap and an informal composting system.

“I learned so much in a year,” she says. “I couldn’t talk about gardening like this when I started.

“I think we’ve missed a generation who know how to grow flowers,” she says. “But I tell people with small sections or with balconies that you can grow cosmos in a pot, dahlias in a pot – you don’t need the space you think. It’s been lovely seeing the joy that wandering flowerbeds and picking a bouquet can bring.”

“If you want perfect flowers in a florist-quality bouquet, this is not the place for you,” Amanda says. “These are garden flowers that you can throw into a vase and enjoy, redoing and replacing them as needed.”

Strawflowers. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Amanda has trained as a marriage celebrant to host micro-weddings (fewer than 20 people) among the covered flower beds, and a smaller shed is now a gift shop where Amanda’s tapped into her creative side to make jasmine vine wreaths and repurpose vintage embroidery, as well as showcase her range of hand-made crayons, another new business.

“I want everything to be as natural as possible and as local as possible,” says Amanda, who has sourced offcuts of New Zealand wool used in rug making to tie picked flowers.

She would be delighted if others were to use her business as inspiration. “There’s plenty of room in the market and it’s the sort of thing that’s perfect for a woman. We’re all part of a Facebook group and support one another.”

For more information or to book a visit to Miss Mandy’s Flower Emporium see the website. Opening in 2022 is likely to be mid-December.

A shorter version of this piece was first published in NZ Gardener and appears here with permission.