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For the love of painting wild flowers

01/10/2020
Iziko Museums of South Africa

Although 2020 has been a year full of challenges, nature is currently yielding exceptionally beautiful flowering wild plants. As many as are able, flock to view the carpets of flowers. We look towards the Iziko collection in celebration of spring and highlight some watercolour paintings done by botanical artist Ethel May Dixie (1876-1973), about a hundred years ago. 

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The Dixie works form part of the William Fehr Collection, a collection well known for its historical oil paintings presently on exhibition at the Castle of Good Hope. Less known perhaps, is the Fehr Collection’s rich resource of several hundred works of art on paper (watercolours, prints and drawings). Due to the sensitive nature of this medium, only a small selection of these works is on exhibition at the Iziko Rust en Vreugd Museum. Scholars and researchers are however provided with access to the works in storage upon request, or with images and information for inclusion in new publications or studies towards academic degrees and papers. 

In 1965 Cape Town businessman and collector of historical art, William Fehr (1892-1968), donated his extensive collection of works on paper to South Africans. It is one of the finest and most comprehensive collections of Cape pictorial art, and includes depictions of historical scenes and events, topographical views, personalities and people, as well as flora and fauna. Included in the collection are the botanical watercolours painted by Ethel May Dixie during the period c.1910 to 1920.  

Ethel May Dixie (9 May 1876 – 11 October 1973) was born in Sea Point. Her father, Daniel Dixie, was a general hardware merchant in Adderley Street, who passed away when Ethel was only six years old. Ethel’s eldest sister Elizabeth received formal art training and guided Ethel in her painting pursuits. Mainly self-taught, Ethel chose to work in the watercolour medium. Painting started out as a hobby for her, but eventually she made a living from it. 

Ethel was educated at the Vredenburg High School for Girls in Long Street, Cape Town, with botany as one of her subjects. She became an accomplished botanical artist and the principal illustrator for Dr Wilhelm Rudolph Marloth’s (1855-1931) series The Flora of South Africa, which was published between 1913 and 1932. Since this work occupied Ethel for several years, she may be regarded as one of the first professional botanical artists in South Africa whose work was specifically commissioned and paid for. Most of her paintings are a combination of gouache and watercolour. She used light background washes in pale grey or green to highlight subject matter – a typically Victorian element in her work.

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Dixie’s original paintings were painted from fresh flower samples, after which limited edition prints were made from the originals. Her interest in painting was related solely to flora. She once admitted that she had attempted to paint a house, but got the proportions wrong, so she went back to painting flowers and never tried anything else ever again. 

In later life Dixie lived at the Avondrust Old Age Home in Rondebosch. She would paint at her half-moon table from 9 am till noon, if the light was right. Each painting took a week to complete and her works sold at the annual Avondrust sale to raise funds for the home. 

On her 90th birthday Dixie was awarded honorary life membership of the Botanical Society of South Africa in recognition of her services to botany. 

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Dixie’s niece was the well-known botanical illustrator Dorothy Barclay (1892-1940). Barclay’s work as a botanical illustrator placed emphasis on the scientific record and botanical accuracy to enable plant identification, while Dixie as a botanical artist focussed more on the aesthetics of the plant or flower, although the depiction was still scientifically and botanically correct. 

Whichever style of flower painting one prefers, observing wild flowers blooming in their natural habitat remains an awe inspiring experience for many people. Ethel May Dixie’s works testify that a century ago she too was struck with amazement at the lavish beauty of nature during a Cape spring. 

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Many contemporary artists continue to be enthralled with the beauty of flowers and depict them in various media, an example being the work by Andrew Putter (b. 1965) illustrated below. Besides their beauty, wild plants and flowers play an integral part in people’s wellbeing as they hold so much value with regard to medicinal qualities and healing. During this time of spring when we are again privileged to enjoy the flowers around us, we need to be aware too that many of them are on the endangered species list.  

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Compiled by Esther Esmyol
Curator: William Fehr Collection
Iziko Museums of South Africa

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Please be advised that all Iziko Museums of South Africa will be closed to the public on Election Day,  Wednesday, 29 May 2024.