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.

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