I have never been able to grow peonies. They are, apparently, among the easiest and most reliable flowering plants, so I can only conclude that I lack so much as a green fingernail.
But at this time of year I can enjoy the peonies in everyone else’s garden. I am also lucky enough to live within walking distance of the National Botanic Gardens, where I can visit the results of superior horticultural expertise. During the past year the gardens have been a wonderful respite, a place to be reminded of seasonal changes occurring despite the sensation of stagnation that Covid provided.
Even if you have visited, you may not know that the gardens contain collections beyond the living plants you can see. There are, for example, half a million preserved specimens in the herbarium. There is also an extensive collection of botanical illustrations, some of which were exhibited at the National Gallery last summer. One of my favourites is a peony painted by Lydia Shackleton.
She created about 1,500 illustrations, including many more paintings of peonies. She was commissioned to do so by Frederick Moore, keeper of the gardens, in 1884. One of her particular tasks, as E Charles Nelson has described, was to document the flowering of orchid hybrids in the absence of any other way of recording the blooms (in colour). Nelson suggests Shackleton was paid a small fee for her work as first artist-in-residence. She was followed in that role by Alice Jacobs.
Her work was dismissed by the author of her entry in the Dictionary of Irish Biography as “flamboyant” and “of slight scientific benefit”. I am not a botanist, but it seems very unlikely indeed that a keeper of the gardens would ask her to create 1,500 useless illustrations.
As if to underscore their importance as a record, some of them have been preserved with dried specimens of the plants attached. Moore assigned her the task of recording new hybrids bred at the gardens, so it seems his intentions were as much scientific as aesthetic.
Yet Shackleton may not have seen herself as scientific and maybe did not expect her work to be considered in that light. Her formal training, in keeping with what was most widely available to women of her age, was artistic rather than scientific.
Ann B Shteir has suggested the professionalisation of botanical science during the mid-19th century made it more difficult for women to be considered on equal terms as men. Instead women such as Shackleton and Beatrix Potter (for instance) often channelled their scientific interests into activities that were seen as more suitable for their sex.
They drew and painted and the results were not always considered evidence of observational abilities. Male botanists, Shteir says, wanted to shed the idea that the study of plants was somehow feminine. Women interested in botany could continue with the areas considered more suitable for their sex: illustration and the education of children. In addition to her paintings, Shackleton also opened a school where we might assume she imparted some of her interest in plants to the children she taught.
Within scientific families, such as that of botanist Joseph D Hooker, female children often engaged in science through art. Some of these women were able to turn an income from their work, illustrating scientific texts or sometimes publishing their own.
By the time of Shackleton's death in 1914, however, women had better access to scientific education. Marie Stopes, better known for her advocacy of birth control, was a palaeobotanist. Concerns about agricultural production in the early 20th century also expanded interest in the science of horticulture and afforded different opportunities for women.
Women were encouraged to take up market gardening and, as Mary Forrest has shown, new institutions appeared aimed at training them. The Irish School of Gardening for Women was one such institution, founded in 1916 by a group of women who met at the Royal College of Science.
One might be inclined to think that botanical illustration has faded like many a Victorian pastime. In fact, it is still a popular form of art and a valued skill despite the growth of colour photography. Illustrations such as Shackleton’s are now recognised as precious documents that can be studied for evidence of ecological change. Perhaps not in the case of the common peony, but in what Shackleton and many others like her were able to record about wild plants.
Dr Juliana Adelman is an assistant professor of history at Dublin City University – @AdelmanJuliana