Thursday, September 2, 2010

Intrepid Women: Sarah Bowdich: Artist and Naturalist, Author and Traveler

Thursday, September 2, 2010
Susan reports:

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. She also 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

10 comments:

nightsmusic said...

What a life! Few modern women could keep up with what she went through, I think.

And I usually only like fish on my own plate, but that plate of fish...I can see why they command so much money. It's beautiful!

Jane O said...

Fascinating woman!
I do love those plates naturalists once did - her fish, Audubon's birds, Redouté's flowers. They're so incredibly detailed, and so much better for identification than a photograph.

Susan Holloway Scott said...

I wish I could see the originals - the description of the watercolors plus gold and silver foil sounds unbelievably beautiful.

There's a wonderful story about Mrs. Bowdich that I didn't include (this post was already long enough!) about how she would work beside the water with a fisherman catching her "subjects", then paint furiously to try to capture the fish's coloring before it died, and the iridescence would vanish.

Michael Robinson said...

Three copies have sold at auction since '93:

Edward Litchifield's copy, Sotheby (NY), Nov. 29th. 2001 Lot 22 $42,000
Beriah Botfield's Copy, Christie's (Lon) June 13th. 2002 Lot 134 £26,000 ($38,480)
Quentin Keynes copy,Christie's (Lon) April 8th. 2004 Lot 566 £22,000 ($39,600)

These are 'hammer' prices which do not include the additional buyer's premium of between 15 and 25%.

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Thank you for the extra auction sales info, Michael. Those realized prices do add a sadly ironic note to the image of Mrs. Bowdich struggling to provide for her children by "her pen and pencil." Impossible to imagine what her reaction would be to such value placed on her work today!

Katrina Snow said...

What an interesting blog about a fascinating woman. Reading about the hardships Sarah dealt with makes me think my problems aren't nearly as bad. I also love the adventurous spirit she had. I see the makings of a great novel there!

One small note. I'm not one of those people who usually points out errors, but I always love it when someone alerts me to one of mine so I can fix it. So for posterity, I wanted to let you know that it looks like there was a mix up in the year Sarah and Thomas got married. It's listed as 1824, but from information you provided about their life, it looks like the correct date might be 1814 or thereabouts.

Thanks for posting such interesting blogs!

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Katrina, you're entirely right - that's a mistyped date, and I've corrected it. I know Sarah was an Intrepid Woman, but not even she could have married Thomas posthumously. Thank you! :)

Mme.Tresbeau said...

An intrepid lady, indeed! It's a shame that she's forgotten except in natural history circles.

Jolene said...

I'm also impressed by the MR. Bowdich--it takes an emancipated man to appreciate an emancipated woman and not be threatened by her achievements. A true love story, a marriage of equals, rather rare for the day.

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Jolene, I was struck by Mr. Bowdich, too. They truly seemed equals.

In fact, I was struck by all the forward-thinking men in her life -- her father encouraged his only daughter to do all the same things as his sons, her husband made their marriage a true partnership, the other naturalists who encouraged her and shared their own findings with her, the publisher who hired her to write books that were usually written by men, the aristocrats who commissioned her to produce the "Freshwater Fishes" project -- all those men respected her first for her intellect and accomplishments. Pretty rare for then. Heck, it would still be pretty rare today! *g*

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