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Ploughing the sea: Latin America observed

Margaret Mee

Colour lithographic plate of one of the aquatic plants from the Brazilian forest painted by Margaret Mee.Rapatea paludosa Aublet by Margaret Mee.The tropical richness of the abundant flora of the Amazonian forests has perhaps never been more minutely conveyed than in the work of British botanical artist Margaret Mee (1909-88).

Mee first came to Brazil in 1952. Her sister was living in São Paulo at the time, and Margaret, a trained artist, intended to stay there for a few years, teaching art at local schools. A trip to the tropical forests of Serra do Mar proved a turning-point in her life, engendering a passionate interest in the flora of Brazil's forest habitats. The study and depiction of this flora was to become her life's work.

Working in gouache and always using living plants as her models, Mee braved the discomforts and dangers of long expeditions into remote and untracked areas. She identified several species previously unknown to science and was the first woman to tackle the southern ascent of Pico de Neblina, a 3,000 metre peak on the Brazil-Venezuela border.

Flowers of the Brazilian forests, shown here, represents the fruits of these expeditions in 32 colour lithographic plates, accompanied by Mee's own notes and contributions from a range of authorities on Brazilian flora. The plate on display shows the aquatic plant Rapatea paludosa Aublet, first identified in 1775 in French Guiana. In her notes Mee describes how she found this beautiful plant on the banks of the Curicuriari river, in north-western Brazil, where she was travelling with two Tucano Indian guides, en route for an ascent of the Serra do Curicuriari.

Mee was an early advocate of the rights of the indigenous peoples of the Brazilian rainforests, whose way of life was threatened by unbridled commercial exploitation of the forests' timber and mineral resources. She campaigned tirelessly for the preservation of this unique habitat, warning that without formal restrictions on commercial companies' activities, many of the species whose beauty she had captured in her work would be lost.

The plate above, from Margaret Mee. Flowers of the Brazilian forests. London: Tryon Gallery, 1968 [Canning House Library Collection], is reproduced by kind permission of the estate of Margaret Mee and of Rountree Tryon Galleries. We also wish to acknowledge Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Rare Book Collection, Washington, DC.

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