Mee, Margaret Ursula (1909-1988)
Born in Chesham, Buckinghamshire, she was encouraged by her aunt, Ellen Mary Churchman, an illustrator of children's books, to develop her artistic talent, and later as a young woman she attended art school in Watford and worked briefly as an art teacher in Liverpool. Left-wing politically, and concerned about the rise of fascism, she decided to see for herself what was happening in Germany and so moved to Berlin in 1932, where she witnessed first hand the persecution of socialists and Jews, the burning of the Reichstag, and the Jewish Boycott Day. Back in London in the mid-1930s, she married the trade union activist Reginald Bruce Bartlett and became a member of the Sign, Glass and Ticket Writers Union. Abandoning painting for political activism, she campaigned passionately for the rights of the unemployed. At the Trades Union Congress in 1937 she proposed a resolution for raising the school leaving age, and subsequently was offered, and turned down, a job with the Labour leader Ernest Bevin. Her marriage, however, was unhappy and after a long separation she and her husband were divorced in 1943. During the war she was employed in the drafting office at the De Havilland aircraft factory in Hatfield, but afterwards she declined a permanent position and returned to painting, enrolling in evening classes at St Martin's School of Art and then winning a place at Camberwell School of Art, where she studied under Victor Pasmore, one of the founders of the Euston Road Group.
In 1952 she and her new partner, Greville Mee, a graphic artist she had met at St Martin's, went to live near her sister in São Paulo, Brazil, with the intention of staying no more than three or four years. Instead they settled permanently, although in 1968 they relocated to Rio de Janeiro. She very soon became fascinated by the tropical flora around São Paulo and began to concentrate on plant portraits. In 1956 she made her first painting expedition to the Amazon (Belém). She was then appointed as a botanical artist by the Instituto de Botanica de São Paulo and sent to Mato Grosso, where she collected several plants new to science. By 1958 her paintings were being exhibited and sold internationally, which meant she could function as an independent freelance artist. The early paintings also include many examples of plants from the coastal forests and arid northeast of Brazil, but after 1964 she confined her explorations to the Amazon. The work brought her international support. In 1967 the National Geographic Society funded her ascent of Pico de Neblina, on the border of Brazil and Venezuela, but the attempt failed and the party was forced to turn back after 1000 metres because the path had eroded. A Guggenheim fellowship paid for two expeditions to the lower Amazon.
Even in remote and dangerous regions, she usually travelled on her own assisted only by local guides. Most of the paintings were done in Rio Negro and its affluents, and most often in situ. (Some were painted from live specimens brought back to the studio.) As her travels coincided with the beginning of commercial exploitation of the Amazon, she concentrated not only on discovering new plants but also on recording an increasingly vanishing world. She became famous in Brazil and abroad for her efforts to save the Brazilian rainforests and brought international attention to the cause of Amerindians. She found the rarest of plant species, many new to science, some of them now extinct as a result of deforestation. Several have been named after her, including Aechmea meeana E. Pereira & Reitz, Nidularium meeanum Leme , Wand. & Mollo and Neoregelia margaretae L.B. Sm. Since she sometimes neglected to collect the specimens she painted from, her folios include plants that have yet to be seen live by other botanists. On her last expedition she painted the rare night-flowering Selenicereus wittii (Schum.) G.D. Rowley, the Amazon moonflower, with flowers that each open for a single night. Having searched in vain since 1965, she finally came upon a plant in bud near Manaus in May 1988. She held vigil until it flowered and then sketched it by the light of a fluorescent torch. The resulting painting appears as the last plate in her memoirs, Margaret Mee in Search of Flowers of the Amazon Forest (1988). Tragically, on the eve of an exhibition at RBG Kew to celebrate the launch of this publication, she was killed in a car crash near Leicester.
Other catalogues of Mee's work are Flowers of the Brazilian Forests (1968) and Flowers of the Amazon (1980). Instituto de Botanica de São Paulo has a collection of her early work, and Kew holds the field diaries, sketchbooks, and a portfolio of 60 paintings. During her lifetime she was awarded with honorary citizenship of Rio de Janeiro, an MBE for services to Brazilian botany, the Brazilian order of Cruzeiro do Sul, and fellowship of the Linnean Society. Since her death, Kew has continued to administer The Margaret Mee Fellowship Programme, which provides funds for Brazilian botanical illustrators to study in the United Kingdom.
L. Gamlin, 1989, "Mourning the World's Loveliest Garden: review of 'Margaret Mee in Search of the Flower of the Amazon Forests'", New Scientist, 1693
A. McConnell, 2004, "Mee, Margaret Ursula (1909-1988)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
T. Morrison, 1988, "Before the Amazon", Margaret Mee in Search of the Amazon Forests: 18-27
R. Schultes, 1990, "Margaret Mee and Richard Spruce", Naturalist, 115: 143-148.
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