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PMC Notes: Maria Graham as Naturalist by Eleanore Neumann

  • 28 October 2020

In the most recent issue of PMC Notes Eleanore Neumann, a doctoral candidate at the University of Virginia, introduces Maria Graham’s work on the natural history of Brazil and Chile, conducted between 1821 and 1824. Eleanore will give a paper about Graham in the upcoming Decolonial Agencies event on 17 November, part of the British Art & Natural Forces series. Read the full issue of PMC Notes online.

Painted portrait of a woman in antiquated clothes wearing a ruff and turban A portrait of the British artist and author Maria Graham (1785–1842) hangs in the Residence of the British Embassy in Santiago, Chile. Her second husband, Augustus Wall Callcott, portrayed her in costume designed to reflect the well-seasoned traveller she had become after sojourns in India, Italy, Brazil, and Chile. Graham fashioned herself in the type of wound turban and round skullcap predominantly worn by Muslim men, a custom she may have picked up while touring parts of India. When the portrait was acquired for the Government Art Collection, Graham’s likeness travelled in her stead to Chile, where she had gathered “many seeds and roots” that she hoped to one day see “springing up” back home in England. She quite literally extracted natural-history knowledge in service of European imperial agendas during her time in Brazil and Chile (1821–25). As independence movements swept through Latin America, she capitalized upon the shifting terrain to explore the freedoms and constraints that she encountered as a female naturalist.

Graham cultivated specific interests in geology and botany throughout her life, from collecting mineral specimens with a rock hammer to watching local artists draw plants at the botanical garden near Calcutta (Kolkata) for the Scottish botanist William Roxburgh, later published as Flora Indica (1832). As a young woman, her professed “love for science” was nurtured by an expansive social network including prominent members of the Scottish Enlightenment. When the opportunity arose to cross the Atlantic on a ship captained by her first husband, Thomas Graham, she immediately began packing drawing materials, tools, and illustrated books to aid identification, such as Hipólito Ruiz and José Pavón’s Flora Peruviana et Chilensis (1798-1802). En route, she sketched a flying fish that had presumably leapt onto the deck of the ship as she omnivorously explored the natural world.

Watercolour sketch of a flying fish with hand written notes

Maria Graham, Lady Callcott, Flying Fish, Doris Set 12th, watercolour and graphite on paper, 1821.

Digital image courtesy of Library and Archives, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (f. 100B).

While Graham was living in Chile, a massive earthquake struck near Valparaíso on 19 November 1822. It set in motion a series of events that would have widespread ramifications not only for her career but for the larger ecosystems in which she was enmeshed. Chile had declared independence from Spain in 1818 and the natural disaster precipitated internal conflict as tensions surfaced during their protracted fight for autonomy (which began in 1810 and did not conclude until 1826). After nine months in residence, Graham was forced to leave and return to Brazil, which had just proclaimed independence from Portugal that same year in 1822. In Rio de Janeiro, she befriended Maria Leopoldina of Austria, Empress consort of Brazil, who invited Graham to serve as her daughter’s governess. Before starting her brief tenure at court, Graham returned to London to publish two travelogues, each illustrated with landscapes after her sketches, that documented the natural and human history of Brazil and Chile: Journal of a Voyage to Brazil (1824) and Journal of a Residence in Chile (1824).

Her engagement with natural history intensified in the aftermath of the earthquake as she circulated the geological and botanical knowledge that she produced through different media. Despite being a landscapist, Graham notably refrained from picturing the earthquake’s devastating effects on the environment. She instead wrote “An Account of Some Effects of the Late Earthquakes in Chili [sic]”, which was read aloud in 1824 to the Geological Society of London by a proxy, as women were excluded from membership. When it was printed later that year in Transactions of the Geological Society, she became the first woman to publish in their journal.

Graham’s report significantly impacted the debate raging in European scientific circles about the origins of the earth. In 1830, the geologist Charles Lyell cited it in the first volume of Principles of Geology, which explicated a new theory that geological phenomena resulted from recurring natural causes rather than catastrophic preternatural ones such as a biblical flood. The president of the Geological Society, George Bellas Greenough, countered by citing a different report of the 1822 Valparaíso earthquake in his 1834 presidential address that was authored by a man. Graham understood that Greenough was attacking her credibility as an eyewitness on account of her gender, allegedly writing to a friend that “he had no right to do it through my petticoats.” The debate was only resolved when Charles Darwin recorded effects similar to those documented by Graham after he witnessed the 1835 earthquake in Concepción, Chile, during his voyage aboard H.M.S. Beagle.

After returning to London by December 1823, Graham began her productive correspondence with the botanist William Jackson Hooker, who became the first full-time director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. While Graham herself did “not habitually draw flowers”, she inquired whether he would find it useful to receive sketches with “just an outline with the real colour of a petal and a leaf … & also many peculiar forms of seed &c.”, given that vivid colors faded from dried specimens. She began drawing plants to further her botanical interests even though she had not previously done so as part of her artistic practice. Once back in Brazil the following year, Graham sketched hundreds of annotated botanical illustrations on every last scrap of paper.

Sheet of paper with hand written notes, illustrated with watercolours of flowers

Letter from Maria Graham to Sir William Jackson Hooker, 30 Jan 1825, Brazil.

Digital image courtesy of Library and Archives, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (Director's Correspondence 43/49, f. 111, KMDC1724).

She collected plants near her home in Rio de Janeiro as well as on scientific expeditions into the surrounding rainforests arranged by Maria Leopoldina, who shared her passion for botany. On a watercolor of Paullina [sic] caracasana, Graham recorded the location as “my hill” and excitedly noted that its unique “nectary!!!!” was distinct from another she had found during an expedition on the iconic Corcovado mountain overlooking the city. As a result of this voracious collecting in both domesticated and wild landscapes, she was one of two women who contributed to Flora Brasiliensis (1840–1906), an extensive compendium of Brazilian plants first edited by the botanist Carl Friedrich Philipp von Martius, who had accompanied the Empress to Brazil on the Austrian Mission of 1817.

Graham also sent back dried specimens and seeds from her own herbarium. From a specimen that Graham had collected in Quintero, Chile, “just as she was on the point of quitting the country,” Hooker grew a flower in his garden, thereby fulfilling Graham’s wish to see plants that were indigenous to Latin America growing in England. While Graham acknowledged that Chileans referred to the flower in Spanish as “mançanilla [sic]”, or chamomile, given its sweet aroma, it was considered a new genus by the European botanical community. Hooker renamed it in the third volume of his Exotic Flora (1827), calling it Graemia aromatica “to commemorate the Lady to whom we are indebted for the introduction and knowledge of the individual”, and also to honor his friend and her brother-in-law Robert Graham, Professor of Botany at the University of Edinburgh. He collaborated with Graham to publish additional findings in, for instance, Curtis’s Botanical Magazine (thirteen volumes of which Hooker edited from 1827).

Upon returning to London for good in 1825, Graham’s engagement with natural history slowed and she focused instead on writing and editing a wide variety of texts for the London book market. Though the stakes were high for women who participated in any masculine discursive sphere, Graham had more boldly asserted her place within global scientific discourses while travelling in Latin America than she appears to have done upon her return to the London art world. In keeping with her lifelong pursuit, however, the last work she completed before her premature death was A Scripture Herbal (1842), an illustrated account of every plant in the Bible based on her drawings and published under her own name.