In 1925, Mary Morris Vaux Walcott was delighted to receive a copy of the first volume of her five-volume set of North American Wild Flowers, the fruit of many years of work. Any proceeds from their sale were intended to support the Smithsonian Institution, run by her husband, Charles Doolittle Walcott.
When I came to work at the Smithsonian in the early 1970s, I found several beautiful framed flower illustrations that had been left behind by a former member of staff. As I hung them on the wall, I wondered where they came from. And as I walked down the halls and went to office meetings, I saw even more. Who designed these flowers and why were they seen so often at the Smithsonian? They are now part of our natural environment. I had no idea how much I would learn about their creator in the years to come.
In 1870, at the age of ten, Mary received a painter’s box which accompanied her throughout her life. She quickly developed an aptitude for capturing the natural world, especially the landscapes of the spectacular regions her family visited during summer vacations out west. Botany and drawing were considered very suitable pastimes for educated young women, although most sat in their gardens rather than climbing peaks and traversing glaciers.
In 1887, Mary, her father and her brothers traveled 10,000 miles by train, horse-drawn carriage, stagecoach, ferry, horseback and foot through the American West and Canada. This was their first trip to the Canadian Rockies, which they crossed via the new Canadian rail line. They traveled to San Francisco, visited Quaker families along the way, and survived a train wreck and derailment.
Traveling along California to Oregon and Washington, they reached Glacier House in British Columbia, newly built by the Canadian Pacific Railway for travelers. A series of such accommodations across the country served meals, in place of dining cars. Glacier House was rustic in design and located near the Illecillewaet Glacier. The Vaux family immediately set up their cameras and captured what may be the first photographs of the glacier.
For over forty years, the Vaux photographed Illecillewaet from this same location, to capture any changes, as George Sr. was very interested in glacial science. And indeed, these photographs clearly documented the retreat of the glacier over more than four decades, a very early record of environmental change. As they traveled east across Canada, they encountered a phenomenon well known to us today, as wildfires obscured their view for miles and miles.
Mary Vaux Walcott revealed the delicate yet rugged beauty found off the beaten path across North America.
After 1887, Mary returned to western Canada almost every summer with her brothers and became a skilled mountaineer, outdoorswoman and photographer. A member of the Alpine Club of Canada, she advocated for women to wear pants instead of skirts for safer climbing. When she was not climbing the face of another mountain, she might be photographing or painting a nearby landscape scene.
All of the Vaux remained interested in photography, capturing the beauty of the natural world and documenting their scientific observations. One summer, a botanist asked Mary to paint a rare flowering arnica. The botanist’s delight with his rendering of the flower encouraged Mary to begin serious botanical illustration. For decades, Mary has explored harsh terrain across the Canadian Rockies, searching for rare flowering species to paint.
Painting wildflowers poses many challenges – after all, they are wild and do not grow in your garden or greenhouse. First you have to find them – where do they grow, in the sun of a hill or in the shade of a deep forest, among rocks or along stream beds, in sandy or loamy soil ? She wrote that there were alpine species that were so rare that she only saw them bloom two or three times in all her years of exploring. You also need to know when this plant blooms – morning or evening, in winter snow or in summer heat, in dry or rainy weather, in hot or cool weather? Next, you need to identify which insects pollinate it and when they are active. It’s also helpful to know what creatures are likely to consume the plant before you can find it. Mary often made numerous visits to potential sites before finding the plant in bloom, dragging her can of paint and supplies each time.
Once she found the flowering plant, she had to work quickly under less than ideal circumstances, no matter how uncomfortable her perch was or how many mosquitoes bit her. She armed herself with mosquito nets and thick clothes – the mosquitoes especially liked her neck when she bent down to work. But time was running out. Unlike roses which have been bred to last a week or more after being cut, uncut wildflowers rarely last more than a day, often just a few hours.
Mary was still working on location, depicting the wildflower in watercolor in nature to ensure she got the correct color shade and hue. Many other botanists would do a quick in-field sketch of the flower shape in pencil, then quickly indicate the colors on a palette at the side of the page. Mary felt that this often led to inaccurate images that did not capture the intensity of the colors or how the colors blended together. She worked at the site for as long as the plant and the sunlight lasted, sometimes up to five hours, before returning to camp. If she wasn’t completely satisfied, she would produce another more accurate finished version at camp.
Mary’s paintings captured unknown and poorly known wildflowers – previously described only from colorless withered stem, flowers and leaves, pressed flat for preservation in a herbarium. His work captured wildflowers at their most vivid and taught the world about the fleeting beauty that appeared and disappeared daily in the remote hills, crevices and streambeds of the Wild North.
In middle age, however, Mary was best known for her mountaineering skills. In 1900 she became the first non-native woman to climb Mount Stephen (10,000 feet) and together with her equally intrepid childhood friend Mary Schaffer Warren, also a Philadelphia Quaker and botanical illustrator, she explored the formidable Nakimu caves (Deutschmann). She was also the first woman to cross Abbot Pass in Lake Louise. In 1908, Mary Schaffer named one of the Maligne Lake Valley peaks “Mount Mary Vaux” in her honor. It is approximately 10,881 feet above sea level at 51°16 north latitude and 116°32 west longitude in British Columbia.
The beginning of the 20th century brought many changes in Mary’s life. The close family band of Vaux explorers is dissolved. In 1908 his younger brother Willie died of tuberculosis. The year 1911 was the last year his younger brother George Jr. traveled to the Canadian Rockies, due to the pressure of work and family responsibilities. And his father, as he grew older, also ceased his travels. Mary made the decision to pursue their photographic study of the retreat of the Illecillewaet Glacier in British Columbia on her own and push further into the unknown in her exploration of the mountains of Canada. She traveled alone or with Quaker friends. In 1913, when she was fifty-three, she climbed Mount Robson, the highest peak in the British Columbia Rockies. In 1935, she celebrated her seventy-fifth birthday with a twenty-mile ride on horseback.
The life story of Mary Vaux Walcott shows the major transitions in women’s roles in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Unlike most families drawn to exploring new regions opened up by the railroads, the Vaux included Mary in their ascents to the high peaks, at a time when most women stayed in camp. In the 20th century, she began to travel independently and take her nature sketches more seriously. Editing North American wildflowers was a task that took almost a decade of his life. The result, a combination of her artistry and a unique printing process, revealed the delicate yet rugged beauty found off the beaten path across North America.
Extract North American Wildflowers: Botanical Illustrations by Mary Vaux Walcott, Introduced by Pamela Henson, published by Prestel in association with the Smithsonian Institution (October 4, 2022). Top image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.