Plant man to the King;
The Kings Botanist;
The Life of Allan Cunningham
“But what’s it mean, Di? Where’s the contrast?” said John, leaning over my shoulder in his usual manner, “It just needs a darker green tone in the foliage, and the stone ledges need another shadow within the shadows. Use the burnt umber and the ultramarine blue to make the grey, and then the whole painting will come together nicely.”
It was Thursday again, and this time the venue was Sydney’s Botanic Gardens. To be honest I have never been much of a horticulturalist, having been surrounded all my working life by either the security glass of a teller desk, or the sterile environment of internet technology offices, the only semblance of nature being the addition of my friend ………….. ‘s Spider Plant, or Chlorophytum comosum, as I am now aware of its Latin name.
Here then, this morning, I was submerged in all things botanic and overwhelmed by the lushness and immeasurable variety of greens; shapes of leaves, and colour and breadth of tree trunks and branches. However, my austere, sometimes prudish nature, attracted me to a lonely, gloomy monument, rising like London’s Cleopatra’s Needle or the obelisk found in the centre of the Place de la Concorde in Paris, from a limpid, lily covered, pond.
Since our art tutor, John suggested we search the gardens for likely inspiration, it was the monuments solitude that first captivated me.
Sitting on my little fold away stood in the middle of the pathway, while overhead, quarrelling flying foxes jostled for a prime sleeping position; in addition endeavouring to ignore the embarrassing curiosity of passers-by, I began my water colour by lightly sketching the scene in pencil, afterward mixing a pale sap green wash to cover most of what would eventually become foliage; cobalt blue following for the place where the pond reflected the morning sky.
Next, it was time to consider the monument itself.
Since first attending John’s plein Air class, he always impressed on us his loathing of the colour black, giving us a formula of burnt umber and ultramarine as a livelier alternative, emphasising that the very dark colour achieved with this combination was a far better and more living colour. By adding water, I knew it would result in a subtle grey suitable to represent stone, consequently, once the green wash surrounding it was sufficiently dry, I applied a grey wash to the outline of the monument. But wait! In order to proceed further, there was one detail on the monument it was necessary to pencil in before going ahead with a further series of washes, thus ensuring the inscription would appear on the base at the end of the picture, since the monument was its point of interest.
Therefore, leaving my stool and equipment in the middle of the path, I approached the monument as an archaeologist, with a trowel, would advance on an ancient temple in Egypt, Greece, or Rome, except I held a pencil, pad, and a pair of spectacles.
‘Within this plinth are placed the mortal remains of Allan Cunningham, Royal Botanist to King George III and the Colonies; removed from the Devonshire Street Cemetery in 1901 for the development of the Central Station.’
I have always liked the name of Allan, after all it is my favourite brother’s Christian name; my famous author brother, Allan Challoner.
However, as I read the inscription chiselled in the dull grey stone, something deeper touched my soul, something about the phrase, ‘removed from the Devonshire Street Cemetery.’ Mr Cunningham must have been highly thought off for someone to feel strongly enough to have his remains exhumed and relocated in such an apt location, seeing he was a Royal Botanist.
I finished the painting, with the added contrast as required by John, which, of course, succeeded in making it just that little bit better, encouraging me to take it to the framers and why it hangs on my office wall even now.
Nonetheless, the inscription haunted me, and having always been rather a sticky beak, as the saying goes in my country of Australia, I began to wonder about this man Allan Cunningham. Who was he? What were his life achievements? And what happened to him?
We Aussie kids, from school days, have always been aware of the colonial botanist, Joseph Banks; the man who first found and catalogued the vast and hitherto unheard of plant species inhabiting our Great Southern Land of Australis, even having one plant named after him: or did he name it himself?
Obviously, here then was another, less lauded, botanist, unpretentiously executing his explorations and findings, diligently noting them and describing his discoveries, ready for transportation back to England.
What of the man however? Would the Mitchell Collection at the State Library of New South Wales hold a clue?
Subsequently, at this point, my adventure began, as I plunged into the life and times of this quiet, unassuming, sincere person, my resulting research enabling me to finally put flesh on his bones and blood into the ashes contained in the obelisk, standing so remote and uncared for, attended only by a moorhen and her chicks.