Botanical Artist

Ellen Hutchins: Botanical Artist

Welcome: this page provides information about Ellen Hutchins as a botanical artist, and has quotations from the letters between Ellen and botanist Dawson Turner.

Success for Ellen’s ‘very first’

The first mention of Ellen drawing plants comes in July 1808 when she wrote to fellow botanist, Dawson Turner of a seaweed:

I had great pleasure in finding Fucus tomentosus with fruit. I enclose a fragment to show you how beautiful it is in that state. I have got some laid out on glass that will I hope enable you to see its manner of growth and its little capsules but fearing that drying may alter its appearance I have attempted to draw it as it appeared when recent.’ Ellen Hutchins to Dawson Turner 27th July 1808

On 2nd December, she wrote
Dear Sir, Your most interesting letter found me employed finishing the drawing you wished for of Fucus tomentosus. I have sent it with drawings of some Confervae. You must not expect very much from me for alas my trembling hand has not “the ease which marks security to please”. These are the very first that I have attempted.’ Ellen to Dawson Turner 2nd December 1808

Ellen was quoting from Walter Scott’s long narrative poem, The Lay of the Last Minstrel, published in 1805. The poem was a significant step in the romantic revival, and immensely popular at the time. The Last Minstrel, in old age, and out of favour,
When to tune his harp he tried,
His trembling hand had lost the ease
Which marks security to please.’

Ellen need not have worried about her ability to draw nor the reception that her drawings would receive. Dawson Turner wrote back to her:

Let me in the first place thank you for your drawings, of which I should be sorry to say anything that might lead you to doubt any sincerity; but, most seriously, I admire their execution as well as prize them for the sake of the artist. You feel that your hand, like the Minstrel’s, lacks ‘the ease’ that marks security to please; you will only be the more qualified at finding, like him, what approbation attends your endeavour. Your F. tomentosus will be very soon engraved. The others, I am sorry to say, seem doomed ‘to blush unseen’ in my portfolios, but they shall not be wholly lost. I trust you will not fail to cultivate this art, without which it is scarcely possible to study the Conferva with success; and you will find that the slightest pencil sketch in a letter will often convey a better idea than the most laboured description. Let me advise you also, if the trouble is not too much, to sketch the leaves of the mosses you examine under your microscope. It saves a prodigious deal of trouble. I only wish I could lend you my own copy of the Muscologia Hibernica to copy what is there done.’ Dawson Turner to Ellen 8th January 1809

Dawson Turner used the drawing of Fucus tomentosus as the first illustration in Volume 3 of his book, Historia Fucorum. The Royal Botanic Gardens Kew has Turner’s own copy of the book into which he had bound the original drawings above the engravings of them. We assume that he had done the same with Muscologia Hibernica (Mosses of Ireland), and that is why he wanted to lend it to Ellen.

Later on it is clear from the letters that Turner did send Ellen his copy of Muscologica Hibernica, and it was still in Ellen’s possession when she died in 1815. Turner wrote to Ellen’s sister in law, Matilda Hutchins, asking if she could ensure that it was returned to him. She replied saying that she knew the book to which he referred, had seen it recently and would send it to him.

Watercolour drawing by Ellen Hutchins August 1810 Litosiphon pusillus, now known as Litosiphon laminariae. Image courtesy of Museums Sheffield.

Ellen seems to have been able to make drawings when she was not well enough to get out ‘on the rocks’ collecting plants. Equally, sometimes she was too ill for drawing as well.

I have specimens and 6 drawings of beautiful minute Conferva that I did before my illness to send with them. I am very glad you liked the drawings I hope to improve with practice. I felt so strongly the necessity of making use of the parcel that I determined to apply myself to drawing as much as my health would allow and have just procured a large store of drawing materials. I shall very willingly do any thing you wish for and have intended to send you sketches of all the new Conferva I met with. They recover so impressively. I began mosses too but have not been able to do much.’ Ellen to Dawson Turner 21st January 1809

Watercolour drawing by Ellen Hutchins, labelled Hutchinsia nigrescens. Image courtesy of Museums Sheffield.

Ellen talked of having ‘procured a large store of drawing materials’. We know that some at least of her drawing materials came from a supplier called Newmans in London. In a letter written in 1913 by one of Ellen’s nieces, Louisa Shore Nightingale (nee Hutchins), she wrote:

My father said with deep feeling once when we were walking to our destination in Soho Square no. 24 “This is where I often went for paints and materials for your Aunt Ellen.” Newmans, where he was getting some for me.’

Louisa’s father was Sam, Ellen’s youngest brother. Louisa was born in 1830, fifteen years after Ellen died, but heard about her aunt from her father.

Newmans was one of the leading suppliers of artists’ materials in Britain in the late 18th, early 19th and early 20th centuries. Established as James Newman in 1784, it traded until 1959, with the only name change being the adding of Ltd in 1939. This information is from a listing on the National Portrait Gallery, London’s website, in their Directory of British artists’ suppliers 1650-1950. The listing for Newmans continues with:

‘James Newman was one of three businesses singled out in 1811 by the drawing master and flower and landscape painter, John Cart Burgess, as having brought watercolours to the greatest perfection, the other two being Reeves & Woodyer and Smith, Warner & Co (qv) (John Cart Burgess, A Practical Essay on the Art of Flower Painting, 1811, p.32). ‘In my opinion’, Burgess wrote, ‘Mr Newman may justly claim a pre-eminence over all other colormen’, singling out certain colours made by Newman as peculiarly excelling those of other manufacturers: Red Lake, Indian Red, finest Ultramarine, English Smalt (‘never ground sufficiently fine for use, except by Mr. Newman’), Antwerp Blue, Gamboge, Indian Yellow, Constant White (‘the only one that I have found durable’), Sepia and Vandyke Brown.’

A link to the Directory entry for Newmans is (link to be added).

When a pencil was not a pencil 

In one of Ellen’s letters to Dawson Turner she wrote:

‘My dear Sir, I have just washed the pencil that finished drawing Fucus Kaliformis, before my heart and fingers cool I shall send it with the few other drawings this parcel contains for you. I hope most warmly that the little I now send may give you pleasure. Ought not Fucus Wigghii to reside with the Rivularia? What an exquisite little beauty it is!’  EH to DT 9th October 1809

It is clear from Ellen’s drawings that she was using watercolour with a brush, not pencils as we know them. Looking at Dr Johnson’s dictionary (published in 1755) for definitions of pencil, gives us the meanings at that time.

pencil (noun)

1. A small brush of hair which painters dip in their colours.

2. A black lead pen, with which cut to a point they write without ink.

3. Any instrument of writing without ink.

To pencil (verb) (from the noun)

to paint.

It’s good to know that when Ellen wrote ‘pencil’, she was writing about what we would now call a paintbrush. It makes me wonder about how many other words that Ellen uses have changed their meaning over the two hundred years since her letters were written.