Margaret Stones is to botanicals, says the curator of the LSU Museum of Art’s new exhibit, what John James Audubon is to birds.
Heady praise from Randy Harelson, the New Roads horticulturalist, artist and author who curated the exhibit, “Margaret Stones’ Flora of Louisiana: The Baton Rouge Connection” which runs through Aug. 3, at the LSU Museum of Art.
And he isn’t the only one making that comparison.
Michael Robinson, who retired in 2012 as the LSU School of Art’s director of development, will say it later during the opening of the exhibit, which features 55 watercolors from the book, “Flora of Louisiana: Watercolor Drawings by Margaret Stones,” published in 1976 by LSU Press.
“This is only a third of the collection,” Harelson says. “The 55 botanicals in this exhibit are the ones that were drawn from plant specimens collected in East Baton Rouge Parish.”
The Baton Rouge area flora seems so real in Stones’ depiction that viewers may have a hard time resisting the temptation to pluck flowers from frames.
Stones’ work is close to perfection.
Still, there is a big difference between her work and Audubon’s.
“Margaret Stones worked from live plants,” Harelson says.
Audubon killed his subjects, then posed them for his paintings.
Stones, who lives in Melbourne, Australia, was born in 1920 in Victoria, Australia, and attended art school and botany classes in Melbourne. After World War II, she left for England, hoping to work as a freelance botanical artist.
“I set off, with no prospects at all,” she writes. “I took a one-way ticket for 95 pounds, and 100 pounds to live on. I got some work at Kew drawing from dried herbarium specimens. That’s a wonderful beginning for botanical artists because you have to work on the anatomy of different plants.”
Stones first drew an impression to get the design of the specimen before recreating it on good drawing paper.
“I work very quickly while the plant is alive, and I don’t go back later in the year and finish it, so I must work quickly,” she continues. “I’m always thrilled when I start a flower because it’s a new experience, and I never grow tired of the flowers.”
Stones established a reputation as one of the finest botanical artists of the century, working as the principal contributing artist to Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, the longest running botanical periodical in the world, and producing works on private commission. She is ranked among the 20th century’s most accomplished botanical artists.
She was in England when discovered by LSU.
Wayne Womack, now a professor emeritus in the LSU School of Landscape Architecture, commissioned her to paint a lady slipper orchid in the 1970s, which later was spotted by friend Gresdna Doty, professor emeritus in the LSU Department of Theatre.
Doty traveled to England and befriended Stones, and suggested to then LSU Chancellor Paul Murrill that the university commission the artist to create a set of six botanicals to commemorate the nation’s upcoming bicentennial, as well as the campus’ 50th anniversary.
The project grew from a few watercolors to 220 as a material legacy of LSU’s bicentennial celebration, approved by the American Revolution Bicentennial Administration.
One of the administration’s requirements was that the project would have lasting value.
“In 1975, Gresdna Doty came by my office with this congenial English lady,” Murrill recalls at the exhibit’s opening. “It’s frightening for me to say that that visit was 39 years ago, but when I see Margaret’s friends here and see her work on the walls, it’s satisfying.”
Stones spent time in Baton Rouge gathering plants with the help of Baton Rougeans. Lowell Urbatsch, director and curator of the LSU Herbarium, was recruited as Stones’ chief botanical advisor.
Doty tells a story of the day Neil Odenwald, who headed LSU’s School of Landscape Architecture at the time, accompanied Stones on a flora search.
“It was a cold and miserable Easter morning,” Doty says. “They were not far out when they came across the dreaded thistle. Friends teased Margaret, saying that the thistle was difficult to draw. But you can see the outcome in the gallery.”
Murrill says Stones loved Baton Rouge. “And I remember what she said when we presented her with an honorary doctorate —- ‘Go Tigers.’”
Doty expands on Murrill’s memory, having spoken to Stones by phone earlier in the week.
“She said she remembers saying that when receiving the honorary doctorate, she could truly call herself an LSU Tiger,” Doty says. “And she said she remembers her comment being greatly appreciated by the graduates.”
Stones’ collection of native Louisiana botanicals are part of LSU Libraries’ Special Collections Division in Hill Memorial Library, which also houses a portfolio of first edition Audubon prints.