Anyone with an appreciation and basic knowledge of the science of plants can feasibly call themselves an amateur botanist and one doesn’t need to be a qualified expert in order to gain immense pleasure from what can be an extremely rewarding pastime or hobby. One amateur botanist who combined her passions for nature and art was the inspirational Margaret Erskine Wilson, an English woman who dedicated her life to the study and reproduction of Britain's magnificent wildflowers. |
Now, seven years after her death, Wilson's exquisitely detailed illustrations, which represent a body of work spanning more than 45 years, have been compiled in a picture book entitled "The Wild Flowers of Britain Month by Month."
An Illustrated Life
Born in 1915, Margaret Erskine Wilson studied languages and textiles at Cambridge, devoting most of her working life to teaching in Somerset and Kendal, in Cumbria. A keen amateur botanist, she spent all her spare time out in the countryside and the majority of her paintings and sketches were done in situ, rather than from collected specimens. She began illustrating flowering plants after a request from a friend, who said it would help her to learn their names if Margaret could reproduce them in the order (months) in which they bloomed.
Margaret would take great swathes of paper out into the fields and draw or paint the flowers in ink, watercolours or pencils. These sheets of paper became the dossiers to which she continually added more illustrations as she encountered new species of wildflowers on her rambles. The more than 150 sheets evolved into a comprehensive and highly accurate record of the country's wildflowers, month by month – although the artist lamented that she had captured only 75% of the total number.
In between her forays into the British countryside, she also travelled abroad to Ireland, France, Switzerland, USA, Italy, Turkey and Afghanistan, and her collection of work encompassed more than 1000 illustrations and sketches.
A Rich and Rare Talent
While she kept her considerable artistic talent under wraps for the most part and was, by all accounts, a very reserved and private woman, her artistic pedigree was informed by her grandfather, a renowned naturalist and artist. He taught the young Margaret the technicalities of capturing the detailed anatomy of plants and flowers and she continued travelling and painting until her seventies, when she was overcome by ill health.
In 1999 Margaret Wilson donated those 150 sheets of wildflower illustrations to the Kendal Natural History Society, of which she was the president. In 2016 Merlin Unwin Books published "The Wild Flowers of Britain Month by Month" in a handy slim size, designed to slip perfectly into a rucksack.
While she didn't live to see her work published, those who knew her say she would have been delighted that her illustrations re out there in the world serving their original purpose – which was to be a an easy way to identify the beautiful wildflowers of Britain and learn their botanical names. Not a bad life's work for an amateur botanist.
Marissa Ellis-Snow is a freelance nature writer and amateur botanist with a special interest in wildflowers. Marissa chooses the expert-led organised by Naturetrek, which have brought her unforgettable sightings of a wide range of wildlife in some of the most spectacular regions on Earth.
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