Mary emily eaton (1873–1961)

In 1923, the final volume of N.L. Britton and J.N.Rose’s 4-volume work on the cacti of the world was published. The first volume of The Cactaceae: Descriptions and Illustrations of Plants of the Cactus Family had been published four years earlier and was greeted with much enthusiasm by botanists and plant enthusiasts, as the work promised to be the most thorough study of the cactus family yet undertaken.

The botanical achievement of these four monumental volumes was made even more significant by the beauty of the work’s illustrations. Mary Emily Eaton, an illustrator employed by the New York Botanical Garden, prepared the line drawings and most of the 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. Her livelihood in England was made 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.

Nathaniel Lord Britton, the director of the New York Botanical Garden, recruited Eaton to illustrate his study of cacti, in addition to her other illustration duties. As the main artist for the four volumes of The Cactaceae, she painted 383 full-color portrayals of cacti and over 300 black-and-white line drawings.

In addition to Eaton’s work for the New York Botanical Garden, 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. She illustrated the Field Book of Common Gilled Mushrooms (1928), and painted charts of edible and poisonous mushrooms for The National Encyclopedia. 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.

Here are paintings of Sonoran Desert plants that Eaton produced for Britton and Rose's The Cactaceae and for Addisonia.

Additional paintings by Mary Emily Eaton can be viewed at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History's Catalog of Botanical Illustrations.