We already met Sarah Wallis Bowdich (1791-1856) on Tuesday, with an excerpt from her own Stories of Strange Lands... (1835) that described her handily thwarting a mutiny in 1816. Although there were several excellent guesses as to her reasons for traveling to Africa, the reality was much more unusual – as was her entire life.
As the only daughter of an Essex linen-draper, Sarah was already adventurous as a girl, and enjoyed fishing, riding, and exploring the countryside. She met her future husband, explorer and scholar Thomas Edward Bowdich (1791?-1824), in London, and the two wed in 1813. They were clearly kindred spirits. Their honeymoon was a 800 mile trip through Wales on horseback while teaching one another foreign languages. In 1814 Thomas was employed by the Royal African Company, and Sarah and their infant daughter soon sailed to join him in 1816 - that voyage that included the mutiny.
But when Sarah arrived at Cape Coast Castle in Ghana, she learned that her husband had briefly returned to England. Undaunted, she used the time to begin documenting local natural history, the first European woman to do so. Sadly, her daughter died of a local fever, and her reunion with Thomas was bittersweet. The two then continued their travels and their studies for the next eighteen months, making Sarah the first European woman to explore tropical western Africa.
Shifting to Paris to further their studies, the Bowdichs became friends with the most prominent French naturalists. While Thomas continued his studies, Sarah supported their household by writing and illustrating her first volume, Taxidermy. Shealso gave birth to several more children. Sarah, Thomas, and their growing family returned to Africa in 1823, but in Gambia Thomas died of fever, leaving Sarah and the three children stranded and penniless.
But Sarah was determined to make a career of her natural history paintings. She sold pictures to support her children while completing Thomas's last book for publication, and also continued her own work, cataloguing new species of fish, plants, and animals. Returning to Paris and London, she was in demand for both her art and her knowledge. Among other projects, she wrote articles for the famed publisher Rudolph Ackermann and for the Magazine of Natural History. She wrote a biography of her mentor, the naturalist George Cuvier. She was forced to put her career aside in 1838 to nurse her dying mother, but then returned with a vengeance, publishing seventeen books and five articles between 1840-1856. Her artwork was so well regarded that she exhibited at the Royal Academy of Art. She also found time to raise her three children. Oh, and she also remarried, to a gentleman named Robert Lee, though she had labored so hard to establish "Mrs. Bowdich" as her author's name that she didn't make her marriage public (or take her new husband's name) until they had been wed for three years.
Perhaps Sarah's greatest single achievement is The Fresh Water Fishes of Great Britain, a project that made the most of her rare gift for artistic, scientific observation. The detail and accuracy of her hand-painted plates – the costly project was limited to fifty copies – are still studied by naturalists today, and prized by rare-book and art collectors as well. (The last copy that came to auction was sold in 1993 for nearly $30,000.) She painted each fish from life, and employed a painstaking technique that employed watercolours and gold and silver foil to replicate the shimmer of the scales.
The project took her ten years (1828-1838) to complete, because, as her daughter later explained, "My mother...having three children to support by her pen and pencil, could not afford to devote all her time to this one work, which accounts for the length of time it was in completion." What twenty-first century mother, likewise stretched between work and family, cannot relate to that?
Above: Rudd, from The Freshwater Fishes of Great Britain, by Sarah Bowdich (Lee), c. 1828
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.