Beauty from nature: art of the Scott sisters

An exhibition featuring illustrations of butterflies, moths, caterpillars and plants by Harriet and Helena Scott, two of 19th century Australia’s most prominent natural history artists will be held at the Australian Museum in Sydney on 3 September – 27 November 2011. Highlights of the exhibition are 60 watercolour paintings created between 1846 and 1851 for their father A.W. Scott’s landmark publication Australian Lepidoptera and their Transformations.

The Scott sisters’ work has been invaluable to generations of scientists. Harriet and Helena Scott were among the first to illustrate the life histories and immature stages of Australian moths and butterflies. They were meticulous and understood the biology of their subjects in great detail. Scientific illustrations play an important role in conveying subtle and important features of organisms.

Even today in a world of inexpensive digital photographs, drawings and paintings are able to illustrate some features that a camera will miss. A typical Scott Lepidoptera illustration would show moths or butterflies as adults, their host plant, larval stage and cocoon, with technical accuracy, at the same time subtly emphasising those parts of the organism of special interest.

In conjunction with the Australian Museum Archives, some of the works of the Scott sisters will soon be accessible online through the Atlas of Living Australia (ALA). Once the illustrations have been checked against modern taxonomy, the ALA will be including images of the Scott sisters’ scientific paintings in the galleries of ALA species pages.

In addition, the Australian Museum has photographed the two editions of Lepidoptera by A W Scott. In digital form they will be made freely accessible through the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL). BHL already holds a copy of The Snakes of Australia, by Gerhard Krefft, illustrated by Harriet and Helena Scott.

There will also be an opportunity for people at home to be involved. Original notebooks of the Scott sisters have been photographed, and in a few weeks time we will be asking for help to transcribe them. From your computer you will be able to see and read exactly what Helena and Harriet wrote 150 years ago, and take the opportunity to contribute a little time to make those historical documents more widely accessible.

Beauty from Nature: art of the Scott sisters exhibition is suitable for art, history, science and nature lovers of all ages.