10 May 2014

Helen and Harriet

So of course this exhibition is all about the work of the Scott sisters, who lived on Ash Island (now part of the larger Kooragang Island thanks to some ingenious 1960s island-linking and environment-trashing). These two sisters were an interesting pair.

Their dad was Alexander Walker (AW) Scott, a well-connected scientifically-minded gent from the mother country, who moved out to the colonies for some adventure.

And some tail. He hooked up with Harriet Calcott, a woman whose parents were emancipists (convicts who earned their freedom through service) who already had two daughters by two different posh military dads. Although social strata in the colonies were somewhat more blurry than 'back home' by this point, it must have been somewhat noteworthy a family arrangement in those days. I wonder what kind of foxy lady this Ms Calcott must have been. Certainly it was a fairly liberal-minded family.

Helena Scott

Harriet and Helena Scott were born from this relationship between AW and Harriet Calcott, and lived their early years into their mid-teens in Sydney. AW had all sorts of fingers in all sorts of pies, being an entrepreneur, local member and scientist over his career, among other things. In 1846 he made an honest woman of Harriet Calcott and took his Brady Bunch (Harriet and Helena being 14 and 16) to live on an island he'd received in a land grant, that is, Ash Island, near Newcastle. They lived and worked there for 20-odd years, in various business ventures and of course AW's etymology works.

As was very common for artists and illustrators, AW conscripted his progeny into the note-taking and illustration of his work. While his step-daughters were involved, by the time they moved to Ash Island, his natural daughters Harriet and Helena really stepped in and took to it with gusto. Their contribution to the 2 volume work, 'Australian Lepidoptera and their Transformations', as well as many others, built their reputation as the foremost botanical illustrators in the colony.

A-Dubs, Colonial Multi-Tasker and Baby Daddy

AW must have been quite the eccentric/enlightened individual. Taking full advantage of being on a fairly remote island paradise full of amazing entomological specimens and devoid of the usual mind-numbing young lady pursuits such as dancing, embroidery and corsetting one's internal organs into oblivion, his daughters trained under his guidance to become highly capable and skilled scientific illustrators.  Remarkably, he acknowledged their contribution at a time when women stayed in the background or even deliberately concealed their identities if they did 'professional' work (think Jane Austen, the Brontes and George Eliot, who all published under male pseudonyms). Through stint of his training and their abilities and hard work, Harriet and Helena, who had been born into ignominious (read: trashy) beginnings, were elevated to the status of noted botanical illustrators.  Their work was known here and in England at the highest levels, and they were granted honorary member status at the Entomological Society of New South Wales  (which they could not join as they were ladies).

All around the same time, 1866-ish, their rural idyl was shattered. AW became bankrupt and his wife Harriet died.  Helena married Edwarde Forde, a scientist, and they trooped off on a romantic scientific expedition to the desert together. Naturally, as this was the Victorian era, which seems to be just chock-a-block with sad tales of tragic illnesses, they both got fever and he died, leaving her a widow in her mid-30s. The family financial situation was so bad, her dad had to borrow money to get her home from the expedition.  She worked and to her middle-class-arriviste horror, received payment, until her final years to make ends meet and avoid working as a governess. Both sisters did a broad range of illustration work in this period for scientific and commercial commissions.  Harriet married at the age of 52 and didn't do much work after that. They both died in Sydney at a ripe old age between 1907-1910.

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