Margaret mee's botanical paintings of
flowers from the amazon forest

On Thanksgiving Day, in 1988, Robert MacNeil of the PBS MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour, interviewed British botanical artist Margaret Mee whose paintings of Brazilian flora were then on exhibit at London’s Kew Gardens, an event planned to coincide with the publication of her book In Search of Flowers of the Amazon Forests. Mee was passionate in her efforts to inform the world of the irreparable damage being inflicted on the Amazon forest, and she believed that if people saw in her paintings the beauty and fragility of the plants of Amazonia, they would take action to protect it. Six days after the interview, she died in a car accident near Seagrave in England.

Margaret Ursula Mee (1909–1988) was an accomplished artist, having studied at several art schools in England, but she did not painted botanical subjects until 1952, when she moved to São Paulo. Four years later, entranced by Brazil’s flowers, she took her first trip into the Amazon, to the Rio Gurupí, where she began drawing the forest’s plants. In a span of only two years, she exhibited twenty-five botanical paintings, first in São Paulo and then in Rio de Janeiro, where she attracted the attention of both artists and botanists. Her knowledge of Brazilian plants greatly increased when she was hired as a botanical illustrator at the Instituto de Botanica de São Paulo. For many years, she split her time between the Instituto and the Amazon, making 14 more expeditions into the jungle to record its unique plant life.

In the spring of 1988, Mee made her final trip into the Amazon with the intent of painting the epiphytic night-blooming moonflower, Selenicereus wittii (bottom right). Although she had previously seen and sketched the plant by day, this was the first time she had watched the flowers as they opened at night. Her paintings of the moonflower were her last.

In an interview for the London Sunday Times, in August of 1988, she described the despair she now felt when visiting the Amazon:

“The last journey nearly broke my heart. All the way up the Rio Negro the forest had been burnt down for charcoal. The land is useless for agriculture, so they simply cut the forest down and burn it. After that there’s nothing.”

Mee’s process was to draw and paint studies of plants in the field and complete the paintings once she had returned home. At first, her paintings were done in the standard botanical illustration format—an isolated plant surrounded by white space. Later, when she saw the danger threatening the Amazon, she began to situate each plant in its natural environment, placing a detailed plant portrait in the foreground and its forest habitat in the background, illustrating the interdependence of the jungle flora. Her hope was that showing the beauty of what was being lost would spur protection efforts.

Her painting of Gustavia augusta (top right) surrounded by its habitat was used for the book cover of In Search of Flowers of the Amazon Forests, a compilation of her Amazon diaries published shortly before her death. About a dozen of Mee’s paintings are done in this remarkable style that is reminiscent of Marianne North’s paintings of plants in their natural surroundings.

The 60 paintings in Mee’s Amazon Collection were acquired by Kew Gardens. While Kew has provided digital access to viewing all of Marianne North’s works, they have not done so with their Mee collection. So here are a few other ways to view her work.

Dumbarton Oaks has a very comprehensive online exhibit of Mee’s paintings in their collection. “Margaret Mee: Portraits of Plants” includes a great deal more than the artworks: the section Amazonian Entanglements provides an interactive map with descriptions of all her expeditions, and Margaret Mee in the Amazon illustrates a biographical sketch with several photographs of Mee in Brazil, including one of her painting the moonflower. The essays and resources section is excellent.

The Shirley Sherwood Collection includes 15 works by Mee.

Limited edition prints of twenty-five of Mee’s original paintings were produced by Oppenheimer Editions to accompany the 2004 exhibit “The Flowering Amazon: Margaret Mee Paintings from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew”. This is an excellent source for viewing the paintings.

Mee’s final quest to find the blooming moonflower is the subject of the wonderful 2012 Brazilian documentary “Margaret Mee and the Moonflower”, which is available to rent or buy on Amazon. I highly recommend it.

A transcript of the MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour 1988 interview with Mee is here. —Cindy Hartwell

This article appeared in the November 2020 issue of the Desert Breeze, the monthly newsletter of the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society.