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Who was the Artist Sarah Dickson?

Cardamine Ladies Smockcrop by Sarah Dickson © NHSN

The archive of the Natural History Society of Northumbria contains a large collection of botanical paintings by Victorian artist Margaret Rebecca Dickinson (1821-1918). We do have a small amount of information relating to Dickinson and her life in the North East of England but one of our enduring mysteries is the collection of botanical illustrations by another talented female artist which is also housed in the Society’s archive.

This artist is called Sarah Dickson. We know her birth and death dates, 1821-1896, but nothing else. Her paintings are of a high quality. Intriguingly, most of the flower paintings, and some of the fungal ones, have been classified to species level using a Linnean system . This suggests either a capable auto-didact with access to scientific literature, or someone fairly well educated.

She seems to have been active between 1855 and 1894 making her contemporaneous with Margaret Rebecca Dickinson, who painted most of her work between 1846 and 1874. Dickson painted at a wide variety of locations, so perhaps she made use of the burgeoning Victorian railways.

In the 19th century women gradually established themselves as artists capable of  earning a living from their work, some of which gained substantial public approval. Nonetheless, a section of Victorian opinion saw flower painting as particularly suitable to supposed female attributes – the subject was small in size, suited to water-colour painting and female delicacy of touch, it could be done at home where the painter was protected from aspects of the art world thought unsuited to delicate women e.g. drawing and painting nude models, both male and female.

We do not know why Sarah Dickson became a painter of flowers, but the work that we have seems to fall into the genre of botanical illustration rather than flower painting as art per se (the genres overlap of course). Her subjects are accurately rendered, and apparently not arranged solely for artistic effect, although the outcome is often rather beautiful. The scientific classification of her specimens also suggests her motives for painting might have included a scientific interest in botany.

She must have been incredibly industrious even if she had no other pressing responsibilities. The archive of the Natural History Society of Northumbria has some 250 paintings of flowering plants, and about 70 groups of paintings of fungal sporophores (fruiting bodies). There is also a list of a further 400 paintings of flowering plants, the whereabouts of which are unknown. We think these are in private hands. Do you  know where these paintings are or anything about Sarah Dickson? Please tell us if you do. Contact us at nhsn@ncl.ac.uk.

ALAN HART, NHSN Archive Volunteer

Further Reading

An edition of a classic work on botanical illustration available in the Great North Museum: Hancock library is The Art of Botanical Illustration by Wilfrid Blunt & William T. Stearn (1994).

Another book containing beautiful botanical illustrations and discussions of the contributions to botany made by women artists in the 18th century is A Natural History of English Gardening by Mark Laird (2015).