Thursday, 1 September 2016

Maggie Wheeler Remembers Aunt Mog

A lovely surprise has come my way, thanks to an email from Maggie Wheeler, who has just become aware of the forthcoming Margaret Flockton, A Fragrant Memory book.

It turns out that Maggie & I are third cousins and gr-gr-nieces of Margaret Flockton, who we both knew as Aunt Mog. I’m descended from Mog’s elder sister Dora (Dolly), and Maggie from Mog’s younger sister Phoebe. When Aunt Mog died in 1953 I was seven and my youngest sister was a baby, as was Maggie. My mother Julia was very busy with four small children, couldn’t drive, had no phone and my father was often away at the wool sales around Australia. It was all Mum could do to keep up with visits to her own mother. So, although Maggie’s mother Cynthia was bridesmaid at my mother Julia’s wedding, I don’t remember our families meeting when we were all children.

Maggie has added an extra dimension to the Margaret Flockton story. Unfortunately her contribution arrived too late for the book, which has gone to print, so it’s being made public here.

Maggie Wheeler begins: Aunt Mog died when I was six months old and her sister Phoebe, my great grandmother, died when I was seven.  I recall my mother Cynthia and her sister Veda talking about Aunt Mog. They believed that the name ‘Mog’ indicated that she wasn't very well treated by her family, although I never heard that she herself didn't like the name.

I am a botanist and when I was working in the Sydney Herbarium around 1979 and was replacing herbarium paper covers on specimens, I came across a letter from Aunt Mog. She was asking for equal pay - at that time I think she was receiving approx. 70% of the male rate. She got it. I put it back with the specimen, without taking a copy.

About ten years ago I spent several years working in Western Australia so I know many species from both sides of the continent. Some of the WA wheat belt still has Eucalyptus flocktonii growing there. It is a fairly widespread species in the southwest mallee country. Because the word 'floccus' has one meaning as ‘tufts of wool’, one of my co-workers took delight in teasing me by calling her a little sheep, knowing full well that she was anything but.

Recently I've noticed the Sydney Morning Herald's offering of a print of her partially-coloured drawing of the sandalwood plant (a.k.a. the Quandong, pictured below as a black & white lithograph Fusanus acuminatus). I've never seen it growing in Sydney but it's very common in the WA wheat belt, and I consider that it was done from fresh material. Did she travel there with Maiden? I doubt whether photos would have been good enough in those days, and I remember my Gran (Phyllis Flockton North née Clarke) frowning upon it. Gran was also a watercolour artist, and taught me.

Fusanus acuminatus, from the Forest Flora of NSW

Louise interjects: The literature confirms that this plant does not grow in the Sydney region but in the semi-arid areas of Australia, which is why you came across it in WA. I’m pretty sure Margaret did not go on any field trips with Maiden. Shipping records and news items attest to Maiden visiting WA with his wife, particularly a 3 month visit in the last quarter of 1909, but there’s no mention of Margaret in these shipping records. People did use the postal service widely to send fresh (specially-wrapped) specimens to the Botanic Garden and there must have been a system for drawing them straight away.

Maggie continues: I am attaching a photo of Aunt Mog's oil painting entitled ‘Sydney Carton’, bottom left hand corner.  The frame is as old as the painting I think, and every so often I repair the plasterwork again and touch it up. I had the painting cleaned and they put some sort of coating on it to prevent further dust damage. I've checked the painting front and back and it is unsigned. Not even initialled.  I have no reason to question its authenticity since I grew up with it, and my mother always said that it was Aunt Mog’s painting. The oil paints set (see below) were also full of the Rembrant type colours.

Sydney Carton, Margaret Flockton's copy of a photograph © Maggie Wheeler

Louise adds: The painting is obviously a copy of a striking theatrical photograph of the actor Martin Harvey, in character as Sydney Carton, the eventual hero of ‘A Tale of Two Cities’. The photo began to circulate in England in 1899. Somehow Aunt Mog obtained a copy (I don’t have any knowledge of her returning to England once she arrived in Australia) and she’s done a fantastic job as an artist, injecting her own dramatic form of expression into those eyes. I have another record of her as a copyist - Cayley’s birds, when she lived in Charters Towers in 1892. She made no secret of that exercise. She painted very few portraits but clearly she was very talented at it and should have done more of them.

Maggie continues: I also have a vase of hers with beautifully hand painted male and female butterflies with Christmas Bell flowers (Blandfordia grandiflora). It was a cultural thing for people to paint the butterflies with the plants that they were dependent on. On the bottom of the vase there is written Cethosia Cydippe (the eastern red lacewing butterfly) and what looks like 'M.F.'

Royal Worcester Butterflies Vase, © Maggie Wheeler
Royal Worcester Butterflies Vase Detail, © Maggie Wheeler
Royal Worcester Butterflies Vase Base, © Maggie Wheeler

Louise adds: The stamp on the bottom of the vase indicates that the art work was by Miss Flockton Clarke, Maggie’s grandmother Phyllis, who also did a series of cabinet plates for the Royal Worcester Porcelain Co – mostly mushrooms, but one butterfly plate. However, the wildflowers on the vase do look very similar to those painted by Aunt Mog and lithographed for the American Tobacco Co series.

Maggie continues: I've always felt somewhat close to Aunt Mog, having also done some painting and drawing. For two years I did some training at East Sydney Art School (now CAE), and had two exhibitions in early adulthood. I haven't painted seriously for many years but I do pick up a brush from time to time and I have a canvas nearly ready for when I feel like painting again. I've also had a long term interest in plants, particularly wildflowers, gardening for my granny when I was a child, then spending lots of time in the bush as a teenager, walking, running and on my horse, delighting in what was around me and eventually becoming a botanist.

As well as the family’s painting and gardening gene, I inherited Aunt Mog’s oil and watercolour paints, and have used them as my own, updated of course when required. In the picture you can't really see what colours of hers are still in the paint box, but I've found that many of the sepias are still usable. 

Margaret Flockton's Oil Paint Box© Maggie Wheeler 
Margaret Flockton's Oil Paints© Maggie Wheeler

I returned about 7 years ago to my property in the hills behind Mullumbimby in the Byron Shire, where I'm working on rainforest regeneration at present.

Note: Maggie Wheeler can be contacted via email.  Louise Wilson's book Margaret Flockton, A Fragrant Memory will be available in November 2016. Click here for more details.