MARGARET REBECCA DICKINSON
A BOTANICAL ARTIST OF THE BORDER COUNTIES
by Dr. ELIZABETH TOWNER
Summary: This book commemorates the life and work of Margaret Rebecca Dickinson in 2021, the bicentenary of her birth. Margaret Dickinson (1821-1918) was a talented and prolific botanical artist, who painted the wild and cultivated flowers of the Border Counties. Although she left no diaries or letters and few detailed field notes about her work, her visual legacy is enormous. This includes 458 watercolour paintings of wildflowers, which she donated to the Natural History Society of Northumbria (NHSN). She also compiled an Album of 30 watercolours of cultivated narcissus, now housed in the Lindley Library Collections of the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS).
Dickinson was an active member of the Berwickshire Naturalists Club (BNC). Admitted as an Honorary Member in 1872, she retained an interest in natural history for the rest of her life. But, during her lifetime, there was relatively little wider recognition of Dickinson’s work, a situation not dissimilar to many other women members of scientific societies at the time.
This book is the first publication to pull together Dickinson’s legacy from a range of sources: the NHSN and her Wildflower Collection and the RHS Album of Narcissus. These are supplemented by local newspaper reports and BNC articles, reports and letters, to place her paintings within the context of her life and times.
What shines out from the book is the sheer beauty, delicacy and variety of her plant portraits. Dickinson did not just concentrate on painting showy or beautiful or very rare specimens. Some depict very modest plants and some are very widespread species. Some plants depicted are now extinct or very rare. The rare Teesdale flora were painted by her a century before the upper Tees was flooded to construct the Cow Green reservoir. Her paintings of specimens collected in a botanising trip to Holy Island have been the inspiration for a contemporary poem about the artist and her work.
Dickinson’s botanical and artistic contribution: During her lifetime Miss Dickinson’s paintings had been admired by fellow members of the BNC when she exhibited her work locally at the Anchorage in Berwick before Club meetings. She would have been delighted by the accolade she received about her bequest from the Hancock Museum’s Curator, E. Leonard Gill, who noted in the NHSN’s Report of 1919:
“The largest and in many ways the most remarkable acquisition of the year has come to us by bequest of the late Miss M. R. Dickinson of Norham… The bequest includes a great series of beautifully executed water-colour drawings of wild flowers, in itself a remarkable life-work.”
The fact that Dickinson’s Album of 30 Narcissus Drawings is now in the prestigious Lindley Library Collections of the RHS, is a great endorsement of the paintings’ artistic merits. One painting, of Narcissus Carnbie which is now out of cultivation, is used as the ‘type specimen’ in the RHS Daffodil Register.
Perhaps today in 2021, when interests are focusing on the importance of the environment and the need to recognise the biodiversity of habitats, Dickinson’s legacy assumes a far greater role than she might have envisaged.
I believe that she merits consideration today as a significant regional botanical artist, whose plant portraits deserve much wider scrutiny and attention. The bicentenary of Margaret Rebecca Dickinson’s birth is perhaps a fitting time to recognise, “the remarkable life-work” that she achieved.