Matilda Smith and painting the titan arum

One of 2017’s events celebrating Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker’s bicentenary (November 2017 Desert Breeze) was an exhibition at London’s Kew Gardens of works by 80 contemporary British botanical artists. Perhaps the most striking work on exhibit was a near life-size watercolor of Amorphophallus titanum created by three botanical artists painting in tandem. In the summer of 2017, the titan arum at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) bloomed for the second time in two years. During its 3-day blooming period, the three artists worked—in spite of the flower’s stench—to create a triptych, with each panel nearly 9 feet in height, showing the three stages of the plant’s inflorescence. The artists, Jacqui Pestell, Sharon Tingey, and Işık Güner, are tutors in the RBGE’s botanical illustration course.

The RBGE artists videotaped their painting sessions of the Amorphophallus titanium triptych. Here is a link to a Vimeo gallery that includes not only brief videos of the three different paintings in progress but also videos of the RBGE titan arum in bloom.

This was not the first full-size depiction of Amorphophallus titanium to be displayed at Kew. In 1878, the Italian botanist Odoardo Beccari was the first European to encounter and collect the plant in Sumatra. Back in Florence, the Marchese Cors Salviati planted some of the corms that Beccari had collected and later gave some of them to Kew Gardens. He also presented to Kew an enormous drawing of the plant—18' x 15'. The drawing

"represented a leaf growing out of the ground, and complete with the two Sumatrans carrying an inflorescence lashed to a pole. For a while the picture adorned the roof of the Orangery at Kew, but Victorian puritanism eventually banished it to a less conspicuous position."1

Also known as the corpse flower, Amorphophallus titanum is infamous for its odor of rotting flesh, an effective adaptation for attracting pollinators but a very unpleasant experience for anyone standing, or painting, nearby.

The first titan arum to bloom at Kew Gardens was in June of 1889, one of the small plants given to Joseph Hooker ten years earlier. The inflorescence began to emerge in early June, and, growing at a rate of about 3 inches a day, it reached its full height of 6’9” seventeen days later. Hooker described the event in Curtis’s Botanical Magazine:

“Unfortunately the flowering stage was so rapid that it was witnessed by few, and by them at the expense of enduring an atrocious stench, resembling that of Bulbophyllum Beccarii, which rendered the tropical Orchid house at Kew unendurable during its flowering in 1881. I should be wanting in gratitude if I did not here express my deep obligation to the talented artist of this work (Miss Smith), who, in her efforts to do justice by her pencil to these plants, suffered in each case a prolonged martyrdom that terminated in illness in the case of the orchid.”

The long-suffering “Miss Smith” was Matilda Smith (1854–1926), Hooker’s second cousin and prolific illustrator of Curtis’s Botanical Magazine. While the titan was in bloom, Smith completed three paintings of the plant that were published in the magazine in 1891.

Also growing in one of Kew’s greenhouses was a saguaro. Smith was the first artist to paint a complete botanical illustration of the saguaro (June 2013 Desert Breeze). The fourteen-foot tall specimen flowered for the first time in July 1891, allowing Smith to include the flowers in her illustration.

Her career as a botanical illustrator was largely a result of a disagreement, in 1877, between Hooker and Walter Hood Fitch, Kew’s renowned artist and illustrator of Hooker’s many works. After Fitch’s departure, Hooker brought Smith to Kew to train her as a botanical artist, and her first work was published in the magazine the following year. Fitch’s nephew, John Nugent Fitch, provided the lithography for many of Smith’s paintings. From 1887 to 1920, she produced over 2,300 illustrations for the magazine, in addition to 1,500 illustrations for Hooker’s Icones Plantarum. In 1898, Smith became the first official artist of Kew Gardens. She retired in 1920, and her final illustration for the Botanical Magazine appeared in 1923.

In 1921, Smith became the second woman to be named an associate of the Linnaean Society of London, and, in 1926, she was awarded the Royal Horticultural Society's Silver Veitch Medal for her skills in botanical illustration and her contributions Curtis's Botanical Magazine.

The genus Smithiantha in the Gesneriad family, was named in honor of Smith by Otto Kuntze, and the genus Smithiella (now Pile) was also named for her by Stephen Troyte Dunn, one of Kew’s botanists. Dunn wrote in his 1920 dedication:

“This genus is respectfully dedicated to Miss Matilda Smith, and the specific name of the first species [Smithiella myriantha] not inappropriately refers to its innumerable flowers as well as to the very large number of beautiful drawings and paintings of flowers with which Miss Smith has for so many years decorated the Botanical Magazine, the Icones Plantarumand the Kew Bulletin.”

Matilda Smith was chosen to design a portion of Joseph Dalton Hooker’s monument wall tablet (at right) that hangs in St. Anne’s Church near Kew Gardens. Encircling the profile of Hooker are five gracefully drawn plants by Smith, each representing a region of the world that had been prominent in his career. Clockwise from top right, the plants are: Nepenthes albomarginata, the white-collared pitcher plant of Malayasia; Rhododendron thomsonii, a rhododendron from India; Damnamenia vernicosa, the black-eyed daisy from New Zealand's subantarctic islands; Cinchona calisaya, the Peruvian tree introduced into India, with Kew's assistance, as a source of quinine; and Aristolochia mannii, a Dutchman's pipe from tropical Africa.

Additional paintings by Matilda Smith from Curtis's Botanical Magazine can be seen here.— Cindy Hartwell

1Richard Mabey, The Flowers of Kew. 350 Yeears of Flower Paintings from the Royal Botanic Gardens. (New York: Atheneum, 1989), 123.

An abbreviated version of this article appeared in the January 2018 issue of the Desert Breeze, the monthly newsletter of the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society.