Antheraea Eucalypti 1851. By Scott, Harriet. Contributed by Biodiversity Heritage Library (Plate 1 from 'Australian Lepidoptera and their transformations drawn from the life by Harriet and Helena Scott; with descriptions, general and systematics, by AW Scott', London, 1864)

Have you done your family history? Well, I must confess that although I do historical research every day, I haven’t yet embarked on tracing my family’s history – although others in my family have begun this absorbing project. But this month is the best month to get started. August is National Family History Month. Here are the Dictionary we’re very aware of how family relationships, connections and businesses build up our communities and are an integral part of Sydney’s history. Today I thought I’d highlight the contribution of two sisters – Harriet and Helena Scott. Their full exploits are documented in a recent article for the Dictionary by Catie Gilchrist.

Harriet and Helena Forde (nee Scott) were the foremost natural science painters in New South Wales from 1850 until turn of the century, despite being born in an age when female scientific education was limited, women’s ‘gifts’ were to be kept in the private sphere of home and hearth, and the professions were a male preserve. In Australia, as in England, the study of natural history was the pursuit of gentlemen, for whom amassing a collection was a status symbol. Yet, through prodigious talent, Harriet Scott and her younger sister Helena became esteemed as professional artists, brilliant natural history illustrators and meticulous specimen collectors. Contemporaries hailed their contribution to late colonial natural science, yet they were mostly forgotten until the twenty-first century.

The Scott sisters’ father was an entomologist and a trained artist with a lifetime interest in natural science, as well as being an entrepreneur and grazier. Alexander Walker Scott inherited his passionate curiosity for botany and entomology from his father, Dr Helenus Scott, a physician and botanist who worked for the East India Company in India for thirty years. This familial legacy shaped the trajectory of the Scott sisters’ personal and professional lives. Their family background, particularly on the mother’s side, is also fascinating, and shows how the line between respectability and social outcast could be a very fine line.

The most famous work by Harriet and Helena Scott is Australian Lepidoptera and their Transformations. Although the work was not published in London until 1864, it was completed in 1851 when the sisters were only 21 and 19 years of age. Their manner of working together made the Lepidoptera paintings both remarkable and exceptional, for they combined accurate scientific detail with stunning visual appeal. Their illustrations were completed with the aid of microscopes to capture the exact colour, texture and details of tiny body parts. They depicted the life cycle and host plants of each species and often included background landscapes, such as familiar locations in and around Sydney, which revealed further information about the habitat of the insects. These landscapes were executed in black pen and ink wash or light colours, to contrast with the vibrant colours of the insects. This contrasting technique was unique to the Scott sisters; few contemporary natural history illustrators at the time used such backgrounds in their work. The Australian Museum has all of their paintings and you can browse through these gorgeous scientific paintings using one of my favourite apps – The Art of Science App.

Coming up next week…

National Science Week kicks off this Saturday, the 15th August, which is another reason why I chose to talk about the Scott sisters today. And, of course, being the good cultural collaborator that we are, the Dictionary of Sydney is participating in National Science Week. Author, media producer and historian Catherine Freyne will be talking about another remarkable woman – Florence Violet McKenzie, an electrical engineer who taught thousands of women and World War II soldiers to use radio for signalling, founded The Wireless Weekly magazine and pioneered technical education for women. Grab your free tickets to hear Catherine next week on Thursday afternoon talking about The Electric Violet McKenzie.

The Electric Violet McKenzie. Catherine Freyne for the Dictionary of Sydney. Thursday 20 August 2015, 3.30-4.30pm. Benledi House, 186 Glebe Point Road, Glebe. For free tickets, email: info@dictionaryofsydney.org

If you missed Lisa’s segment this morning, you can catch up here. Don’t forget to listen in next week on 2SER Breakfast with the lovely Mitch Byatt to hear more Sydney history.

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