Overlooked species on our doorstep
The small town of Creswick sits picturesquely among the rolling hills and woodlands of Central Victoria, and it was an artistic place 120 years ago.
Local artist Lionel Lindsay was already making a name for himself with his watercolours when Malcolm Howie, a distinguished botanical illustrator of Victorian fungi, was a child.
Unfortunately for the budding naturalist, Howie had spinal muscular atrophy and he lost the ability to walk at the age of 15.
Perhaps this lack of mobility encouraged him to focus on the small, hidden, overlooked species on his doorstep.
Between 1930 and 1935, he painted more than 200 species of fungi.
Twenty watercolours from the collection at the University of Melbourne Herbarium are currently on show in Still Life at the Buxton Contemporary in Southbank.
It is easy to overlook these modest little renderings among the more creative contemporary exhibits by big-name artists.
According to today’s amateur naturalists, there are still hundreds of thousands of species of fungi waiting to be discovered in Australia.
Just 1640 Victorian species have been described to science and even words such as gills, caps, stems, fleshy pores and gelatinous texture are relatively unfamiliar.
A quick walk through the woodlands near Creswick is enough to get an explorer’s eye working, with some varieties looking like stones and others like puff balls against the more familiar gilled varieties.
The Latin names of the species painted by Howie are part of their attraction and are sometimes descriptive, such as the Cortinarius violaceus that is a beautiful, bruised purple.
These lovely little watercolours capture the great colour combinations in nature, with the indigo Polystictus versicolor quite mesmerizing.
Botanical illustrations cross the boundary between art and scientific classification and often show cross-sections and settings.
Fungi are not able to photosynthesise and illustrations of single species in situ demonstrate how they attach themselves to fence posts and rotten wood to gain nutrients.
Invention, in an artistic sense, applied to the processes used by an artist to transfer an image from nature onto paper or canvas.
In watercolour work there are washes, cross-hatching, fine brushwork, and a host of other techniques for conveying the craft.
In the early 1900s botanical models such as these were used for teaching.
Now these relics of a more closely observed world are quite poignant with the scale of the little pixie hats, to use a non-scientific label, implying their spatial distribution.
All of Howie’s fungi work was done in the last five years before his death at the age of 36.
Still Life, Buxton Contemporary, until November 6. •