Born in Colac, Victoria, Australia on August 28, 1920, botanical artist Margaret Stones achieved an acclaimed international career that spanned three continents. Appreciated since the 1950’s by specialists and non-specialists alike, her work enriched the collections of museums, libraries, scientific institutions, and art patrons in Australia, Great Britain, and the United States, and appeared in significant botanical publications. Stones’s art has been featured in an impressive array of exhibitions and been recognized with distinguished awards and honors. Of the three major multiyear endeavors undertaken by Stones during her long professional career, the final one – the native flora of Louisiana – resulted in one of the most remarkable collections of botanical art created for a U.S. state.
The Louisiana project forged a special relationship not only between Margaret Stones and Louisiana State University but with numerous Louisiana residents as well. Funded entirely by private donations, the over two hundred watercolor drawings by Stones known as the Native Flora of Louisiana Collection are held in LSU Libraries Special Collections as a treasured legacy for the entire state. At the time of her death on December 26, 2018 at age 98, the artist’s cherished connection with Louisiana was once again at the forefront shortly after the publication by LSU Press of a new deluxe edition of Stones’s Louisiana flora.
Growing up in Australia, Stones showed an early aptitude for drawing and by age fifteen had set her sights on art as her life occupation. She studied industrial art at Swinburne Technical College (now Swinburne University of Technology) in Melbourne on a three-year scholarship, then attended night classes at the National Gallery of Victoria Art School while working as a commercial artist. With the outbreak of World War II, Stones entered nursing training, but in 1945 became a hospital patient herself after contracting pulmonary tuberculosis. Confined to bed for over a year, she occupied her time by making drawings of wildflowers brought to her by visitors. The drawings impressed her physician, and this led to contacts in Melbourne that resulted in Stones’s first solo exhibition, as well as opportunities to attend botany lectures at the University of Melbourne and participate in botanical expeditions documenting Australian flora.
Stones left Australia for England in 1951 to further develop her skills in botanical illustration, taking up employment as a freelance artist at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, where she remained until 2002. From 1958 to 1983, she was the principal contributing artist to Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, in which over 400 drawings by her were published. Valued by botanists for its scientific correctness, Stones’s work during her years at Kew included illustrations for scientific monographs as well as other projects. Her second major body of work, commissioned by Lord Talbot de Malahide, was issued from 1967 to 1978 in six volumes in The Endemic Flora of Tasmania, considered one of the most significant botanical publications of the 20th century.
While at work on the Tasmanian flora, Stones received a visitor from Louisiana—an encounter that would lead into what the artist later called “the ten happiest years” of her life. LSU professor emerita of theatre Gresdna Doty, on sabbatical in London in 1974, was the catalyst that brought Stones to work in a part of the world unfamiliar to her until then. Doty had first been introduced to Stones’s art by LSU landscape architecture professor Wayne Womack. After meeting the artist in London and seeing more of her work, Doty proposed to Chancellor Paul Murrill that LSU commission Margaret Stones to create a portfolio of drawings of Louisiana native plants to commemorate the bicentennial of the United States, and LSU’s 50th year at its present campus, in 1976. With strong support from Murrill and others, private funds were raised to commission six watercolor drawings from Stones, who on her first visit to Baton Rouge in early 1976 was immediately intrigued by the variety and beauty of Louisiana’s flora. Those first six watercolors were so enthusiastically received by the LSU community that Murrill offered Stones an expanded commission for 200 drawings, to be completed over ten years.
A statewide committee of Louisiana citizens solicited financial sponsorship from individuals and corporations. Lowell Urbatsch, shortly after joining LSU’s botany faculty, became the project’s principal scientific advisor. A committee made up of members of the landscape architecture faculty had created an initial list of native plants for the project. Urbatsch made some changes to that list, and coordinated the selection and collection of plant specimens from throughout Louisiana for Stones to draw. The specimens were subsequently deposited in the LSU Herbarium as a permanent scientific record of the project, complementing the beautiful drawings that gradually entered the LSU Libraries’ E. A. McIlhenny Natural History Collection.
Since she worked only from live specimens, Stones made trips from England to Baton Rouge once or twice each year during the ten-year commission. She often joined in plant collecting excursions to various parts of the state, forging lasting friendships with some of the participants. The Louisiana flora project with Margaret Stones not only generated considerable public interest, but also expanded botanical knowledge by documenting a number of rare and endangered plants found in the state and never illustrated before. In recognition of her outstanding work, LSU awarded Stones an honorary doctorate in 1986 and a University Medal in 1992. The artist continued to visit Baton Rouge well beyond the official conclusion of her ten-year commission, making several additional drawings for LSU and generously donating others. Louisiana friends kept in touch with Stones after she retired to Australia in 2002, up until her death.
LSU Press first published the Stones drawings in book form in 1991, in Flora of Louisiana. Selected drawings from the Louisiana flora collection have been exhibited over the years in Hill Memorial Library, as well as other venues in Louisiana. Some of Stones’s Louisiana watercolors have also been loaned for exhibitions at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, and at museums in England, Scotland, and Australia. The drawings in the Native Flora of Louisiana Collection are a marvelous record of the state’s natural heritage as well as an artistic treasure, which community groups, LSU visitors, and classes in botany, landscape architecture, and art are welcomed into Hill Memorial Library to view by appointment. In November 2018, LSU Press issued a much-anticipated full-color folio edition of the Stones watercolors under the title Native Flora of Louisiana. The new publication was made possible in large part by private fundraising, spearheaded by former Chancellor Paul Murrill and other longtime supporters of Margaret Stones’s work. The artist received her copy of the new book before her death, and was able to enjoy revisiting those happy years during which she had worked on the Louisiana drawings. It was surely a gratifying end to her long and amazing journey.
Christina Riquelmy, Rare Book Cataloger, LSU Libraries Special Collections
"Louisiana's Natural Treasure: Margaret Stones, Botanical Artist" exhibition, Spring 2020