An unsung hero of Irish botanical art

An Irishwoman’s Diary about an intrepid painter and gifted letter-writer

Charlotte Wheeler-Cuffe’s watercolour of the white-flowered species of rhododendron Rhododendron cuffeanum, which grows on trees like an orchid, not on the ground. Photograph: Office of Public Works

Charlotte Wheeler-Cuffe’s watercolour of the white-flowered species of rhododendron Rhododendron cuffeanum, which grows on trees like an orchid, not on the ground. Photograph: Office of Public Works

Wed, Apr 9, 2014, 02:00

Justice is at last being done to the gifted and intrepid botanical artist Charlotte Wheeler-Cuffe with the publication of E Charles Nelson’s beautiful book. This glorious volume, published by the National Botanic Gardens, where it was launched last night, follows Lady Wheeler-Cuffe’s experiences in Burma between 1897 and 1921, when she painted dazzling watercolours of orchids and other botanical beauties. And as the subtitle, “Shadow among Splendours”, suggests, her various expeditions were in fact adventures. As the wife of an engineer working in the colonial service, she engaged in musical evenings and social events, sang in various choirs, was proficient at playing the piano and of course, could draw and paint. And she did. She also created a fabulous botanical garden at Maymyo in Burma, her legacy.

Charlotte, nicknamed Shadow following a serious childhood illness, is one of the unsung heroes of Irish botanical art, and of botany. Although she was primarily an artist, her enthusiastic pursuit of exotic plants, invariably discovered by her from the back of the tough little ponies she favoured for exploring jungles and mountainside, excited specialists back at Kew Gardens in London and at the National, then Royal, Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin, Dublin. Visitors to the gardens may have noticed an Indian horse-chestnut near the Mill Race. It grew from seeds given by Charlotte Wheeler-Cuffe and a water colour of it by the late Wendy Walsh features in the book.

It was while reading the letters of Sir Fredrick Moore (1857 - 1949), a former director of the gardens, that Dr Nelson became aware of Charlotte Wheeler-Cuffe. He became intrigued with this late Victorian-Edwardian lady. Luckily for him and for posterity, she was a natural communicator and her letters are vivid, exciting and generously detailed, short stories in themselves. They form the basis of the book, and make for extraordinary, social and cultural history. In this age of the text, Dr Nelson’s labour of love has also done a tremendous service in highlighting the lost art of letter-writing.

She was born Charlotte Isabel Williams in Wimbledon on May 24th, 1867, the youngest daughter of William Williams and his second wife, Rose Isabella, who was the third daughter of the Revd Sir Hercules Richard Langrishe, third baronet, of Knocktopher, Co Kilkenny. Young Charlotte and her sister, Rosabel Mary, were raised in the family home in Wimbledon as well as at Upperfold, a country house in West Sussex. There were also many childhood visits to Fir Grove, near Thomastown, Co Kilkenny, the home of their mother’s younger sister, Charlotte Langrishe.

From her earliest days she delighted in travelling and once painted a small watercolour from memory of Croaghpatrick while waiting for a train at Portarlington station.

In May 1888 she painted The Scalp near Enniskerry in Wicklow and also toured Connemara, painting Mweelrea as well as the Bundara river. She did not marry until she was 30. There was some family opposition when she became engaged to Otway Wheeler-Cuffe, who also had Irish roots. His parents were at the time living near Waterford city. Charlotte and Otway had known each other from childhood. Whatever about his father’s objections, the couple did marry and through her husband’s various postings to Burma, Charlotte’s eyes were opened to a natural world that was completely different and utterly exotic.

Her lively personality and sense of adventure provided her with many opportunities to inspire her artistic talents. In April 1911 she walked and rode more than 80 miles to explore Mount Victoria, near the Bay of Bengal in western Burma. There, on the highest slopes of the mountain, at about 10,000 feet, she found a white-flowered species of rhododendron, Rhododendron cuffeanum , noting that it grows on trees like an orchid, not on the ground, and she became the first person to record and collect it.

That she was a talented artist is obvious from the quality of her work; she was also an astute observer who missed very little; her letters to her adored mother are richly descriptive. Charlotte’s travels through Burma were dominated by plants and animals, magnificent views, biblical storms, not idle Rangoon gossip. Yet there is fun too: her impatience is often hilariously well described. She and her husband did not have children, but they shared many pets and a good marriage, sustained no doubt by her unfettered independence. Surviving Otway by 33 years, she died in Kilkenny in 1967, 11 weeks short of her 100th birthday.

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