MARY EMILY EATON (1873 – 1961)

The botanical achievement of the four monumental volumes of The Cactaceae (1919–1923) was made even more significant by the beauty of work’s illustrations. Mary Emily Eaton, an illustrator working for the New York Botanical Garden, prepared the line drawings and most of the 107 color plates of cacti, a remarkable artistic feat given the difficulty of the subject.

Eaton was born in 1873 in Gloucestershire, England, where she received formal art training at the Taunton School of Art in Somerset and also studied at the Royal College of Art. She made her livelihood in England by painting Worcester porcelain.

At age 36 Eaton spent two years visiting her brother’s banana plantation in Jamaica where she began painting the island’s exotic butterflies and moths. In 1911, she went to New York City, and it was here that her paintings were noticed by the New York Botanical Garden. The Garden hired her as principal illustrator for their publication, Addisonia, a position she retained until 1932.

In addition to Eaton’s work for the NYBG, she contributed a series of wildflower paintings to the National Geographic Society’s The Book of Wildflowers (1924) and botanical paintings for “Our State Flowers” for the 1917 issue of the Society’s magazine. Her work was included in Contributions from the U.S. National Herbarium, and she painted birds, insects, and butterflies for the American Museum of Natural History, but Eaton remains best known for the magnificent illustrations in The Cactaceae.

During the Depression, Eaton’s employment at the New York Botanical Garden ended, and unable to find another position, she returned to England where she spent the remainder of her life.

In 1922 and again in 1950, her work was exhibited at the Royal Horticultural Society where she was awarded its Grenfell Medals. Other exhibits of her work were held at the New York Botanical Garden (1932), the New York Public Library (1933), and The Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation (1977). Her works remain in the permanent collections of the NYBG and the National Geographic Society, and most of her original paintings for The Cactaceae are held by the Smithsonian Institution.