Books & Literature

Book Review: Margaret Flockton, by Louise Wilson

BIOGRAPHY: With hundreds of full-colour illustrations, including many of her beautiful plates, this biography captures the essence of a remarkable woman, illustrating a life of deeds, not words.

Beautiful illustrations which show off Margaret Flockton’s too long overlooked artistic talents.
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Margaret Flockton came from an upper middle-class family in Victorian England that had fallen onto hard times. She had firsthand experience of how the poor financial judgement of her father impacted the family and, from her grandmother’s experience, how women were unprotected by laws which did not allow married women to control their own money or income. When her family moved to Australia in search of a better life, Margaret stayed in London to complete her artistic education. She was 27 when she joined her family in Sydney in 1888.

For my taste, author Louise Wilson, a relative of her subject, provides too much detail on the genealogy and history of the family in England and Wales. While the lack of financial acumen of her father and his tendency to pursue art to the detriment of his family was no doubt important in Flockton’s decision to remain single and not place her financial future in the hands of a husband, I do feel it’s over done. This is particularly the case as this biography seeks to “rediscover” the talents of Margaret Flockton, which for too long were subsumed by male-dominated histories of botanical art.

Flockton set up a studio as a teacher and a watercolour artist in 1892 and began to exhibit her work. Despite the critics’ general view that women were not “serious” artists, even a misogynistic critic admitted: “There are some works of genius in the gallery … Margaret Flockton’s little-noticed ‘study’ which is worth a ton to some of the bigger canvasses (page 78).”

It is in this chapter, Fine Artist, Sydney, that Wilson begins to list the catalogue prices of Flockton’s work with “A Study”. It’s unclear whether this is what the critic is referring to above, listed at £10,10.0. I find I’m annoyed by the listings of the price of Flockton’s work in various exhibitions as it seems to me the author is only encouraging the erroneous “serious art narrative” of that time where art was judged by its commercial rather than aesthetic/artistic value.

Flockton’s talents as a botanical illustrator were finally being recognised through independent work on cigarette cards, posters and postcards—all now collectors’ items. In 1901, the new director of the Sydney Botanic Gardens, J H Maiden, was looking for just such an artist. Unlike Flockton, Maiden had no formal qualifications in his field. The artist’s job was a public service position and despite her experience and training, Margaret was only appointed to a casual part time position and paid a much lower wage than far less qualified men. Maiden made numerous representations over the years for her salary to be increased

For the next 25 years, Flockton worked at the Botanic Gardens, illustrating specimens and she was recognised as the finest botanical artist of her time. Wilson continues Flockton’s story into retirement where she continued to paint and enjoyed spending time with her growing family. There is no evidence she regretted never having married, and doubtless the precarious financial position of her mother and father for most of her life encouraged her in the decision to remain independent.

The book contains many wonderful reproductions of Flockton’s botanical drawings and her other art works, but I feel the number of photographs, particularly of houses where she lived, and of maps which do nothing to enhance the narrative, should have been edited down. The small quarto size of the edition was very pleasant to handle but I found the font size of both the normal text and the even smaller quotations hard to read. This is a shame as many women who, like me, came of age during the second wave of feminism, and are keen to read about the history of women which has been ignored and overlooked for far too long, would appreciate a somewhat larger font.  

Reviewed by Jan Kershaw

This review is the opinion of the reviewer and not Glam Adelaide.

Distributed by: Wakefield Press
Released: September 2021
RRP: $65


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