Vanessa Finney, Transformations: Harriet and Helena Scott, colonial Sydney’s finest natural history painters

NewSouth Books, 2018, 204 pp. (plus notes and index), ISBN: 9781742235806, h/bk, AUS$49.99

Harriet Scott (Morgan) (1830–1907) and Helena Scott (Forde) (1832–1910) were, as natural history artists, without peer in colonial Sydney. In eighteenth-century Australia, an overtly blokey society, the Scott sisters defied the expectations of the day and inserted themselves into the male-dominated worlds of art and science. The results of their efforts are glorious.

Vanessa Finney, the Australian Museum’s chief archivist and librarian, has patiently pulled together what is known of these two extraordinary women. Historical records are imperfect, from subtle omissions through to glaring gaps. Some aspects of our private and public lives are just not documented, some documentation is lost, damaged or destroyed across generations: what remains can sometimes be found in archives and libraries. Finney acknowledges these complexities and suggests history ‘is a collective activity and an ongoing process’ and hopes that this book ‘continues to inspire discoveries, conversations, writing and exhibitions on the long and amazing lives of Harriet and Helena Scott’ (p. 212). Yet, despite these challenges, the text does present a rich and satisfying dual biography of two women who challenged, and changed, a colonial city. The task of writing two biographies together can be daunting for the writer and disjointed for the reader. This work presents two lives with equal care, the ups and downs of these artistic lives conveyed alongside stories of other members of the Scott family.

The artistic achievements of the Scott sisters are stunning. Butterflies and moths dominate their oeuvre. The images are so realistic it is easy to imagine they are not paintings reproduced but rather they are live insects there in front of you, merely resting on the page. Other animals were also drawn by the Scott sisters and feature across this text. There is, too, a wide range of flora, from delicately nibbled at leaves through to sprays of flowers. Finney has carefully curated manuscripts and published examples to show how two women developed a complete command of capturing the natural world. One of the more beautiful commercial outputs is a graphic image by Harriet Scott used to mount wedding photographs – three family images elegantly surrounded by printed frames of plant life and animals including a possum, wallabies in the distance, a wombat half asleep and birds (p. 160).

The book — as we have come to expect from NewSouth — has been beautifully produced. It is substantial, with high-quality paper and pages large enough to do justice to the artworks and manuscripts reproduced as part of the Scott sisters’ story. The layout is excellent with images, captions and narrative all supporting each rather than appearing to compete for attention: every element works together to present a cohesive, and visually spectacular, volume.

There is also a bibliography and an index, as well as a very useful list of the cultural institutions holding relevant collection materials.

Transformations is a terrific tribute to Harriet and Helena Scott. The book is essential reading for anyone interested in natural history, colonial Sydney or in the story of how two Australian women brought the bush into people’s homes.

Reviewed by Dr Rachel Franks, January 2019
Visit the publisher’s website here.

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