By Emma Gibson
I’ve always loved botanical water colours and sketches. It could be because my mother is a horticulturalist, or it could simply be that I like the aesthetic, the old-fashioned quaintness of pre-photographic likenesses and the way the representation of nature invites us to consider the world around us.
Early colonials in Australia had new types of flora to depict and document in their art, and that’s where Dorothy English Paty comes in. The National Library holds Dorothy English Paty’s two Newcastle sketchbooks as part of the Nan Kivell collection, although it’s not known precisely when collector Rex Nan Kivell acquired the books.
I had never heard of her before coming to this talk, where curator Nat Williams presented his research in uncovering the story of this little-known botanical illustrator.
Born in 1805 in Bidford, North Devon, and married to John Paty in 1829, Dorothy English Paty arrived in Hobart in 1829, with her husband, who was appointed as the Deputy Assistant Commissary General in Newcastle.
Ladies of that age were expected to have accomplishments, as Jane Austen has taught us, and Dorothy had art tuition at some point during her life in England.
There’s something like a period drama to this: the story of a woman who as well as being a dutiful wife and mother also found time to pursue art, filling notebooks with around 60 watercolours of flowers from the region, which she also annotated with the date, and the name of the species. Her husband brought some of the specimens home for her.
It seems that Dorothy didn’t keep a journal, so her art provides a visual diary and through it, part of her story emerges. Dorothy had her first child in 1831, and her second, a daughter, in 1833. When daughter Elizabeth died at the age of eight months, she painted nothing for two months. Then she seemed to throw herself into art, working at an impressive pace based on the dates on the paintings, many of which would have been done at the home of her friend Harriet Anley.
It had been long thought that a series of Paty’s paintings had been copies of Anley’s, where she was not in possession of the specimens, but Williams says it seems the women painted from the same flowers together, side by side. Later, the triumphant annotation on one of Paty’s pieces brags of a specimen ‘Mrs A. has it not’—suggesting a good-natured rivalry. Williams has also unearthed a painting of the Paty’s home, shedding further light on her brief life.
Dorothy English Paty died from complications following childbirth in 1836, aged 31. Her fourth child, Francis, didn’t survive infancy. She was survived by her husband, her sons John Thomas and George and two notebooks cataloguing the flora of her colonial home.
The inscription on her tombstone bore no reference to her artworks, and indeed, the tombstone has now been lost. Paty remains a mystery, but with her sketchbooks and the research by Williams and others, she is not completely lost to memory.
Emma Gibson is a writer and performance maker from Canberra, Australia. She writes plays and writes about place. Her previous plays include Johnny Castellano is Mine (Canberra Youth Theatre/Street Theatre), The Pyjama Girl (HotHouse Theatre), Widowbird (The Street Theatre).
Emma’s work has been performed internationally and includes War Stories (24:7 Festival; Re:Play; Greater Manchester Fringe; Buxton Fringe), Bloodletting (Bread and Roses Theatre, London), and collaborations at the Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre and The Lowry.
Emma has undertaken artist residencies and participated in festivals internationally. Turning recently to prose, Emma has had short pieces published in the Skagastrond Review, Seizure, Iceview, and an anthology written in the sands of the Sahara Desert. She’s previously contributed to Broadway Baby, BMA and Lip Mag. Emma has created a site-specific poetry installation in Spain, helped run an artist residency in remote Iceland, reviewed 100 shows at Edinburgh Fringe, and made an audio walking tour around Garema Place for Canberra’s You Are Here Festival. She is currently studying a Masters of Creative Writing (Place Writing) with Manchester Metropolitan University.
Life & Death: Dorothy English Paty
28 June 2017, National Library of Australia