watercolour painter, illustrator, writer, naturalist and taxidermist, is more famous as a botanist and writer than as a visual artist. This is perhaps not fair to her reputation for although she wrote six novels – the first, Gertrude the Emigrant , in 1857 (being illustrated by S.T. Gill and Edmond Thomas, apparently after her drawings) – and published many botanical articles throughout the 1860s in her column called 'A Voice from the Country’ in the Sydney Morning Herald and in the Horticultural Magazine , sketching and painting in watercolours was an integral part of her artistic life.

Atkinson was born at Oldbury near Berrima (NSW) on 25 February 1834, the younger daughter of two authors; her father, James Atkinson, published An Account of the State of Agriculture and Grazing in New South Wales in 1826 and her mother was Charlotte Barton, author of A Mother’s Offering to Her Children (Sydney 1841), the first children’s book written and published in Australia. Her father having died when she was two months old, Louisa was educated by her mother, who taught her to draw plants, flowers and animals. A devout Anglican, she became a dedicated church worker who assisted the poor. She was a friend of the poet, botanist and teacher Dr William Woolls and regularly corresponded with the eminent botanist Baron Ferdinand von Mueller. Her many accomplishments included being an expert taxidermist and she kept numerous stuffed animals to assist her in her work, according to her granddaughter. She wrote in her Herald column about a native cat’s skin she had been given when the animal was shot near Mt Tomah, and she made a vivid ink and watercolour sketch of the live animal from it (private collection).

On 11 March 1869 Louisa Atkinson married James Snowden Calvert. They had a daughter in 1872. Louisa died at their home in Sutton Forest 18 days later, on 28 April. She had always been in delicate health, despite her vigorous bush explorations. Woolls delivered a lecture in her memory in July and attempted to institute an annual prize in her name for the best collection of native flowers, but the project came to nothing.

Those of her works which have survived are mainly in the Mitchell Library, donated by her granddaughter, Miss Janet Cosh. Atkinson’s splendid large watercolour of a possum (varnished to look like an oil) was given to the National Trust (Old Government House, Parramatta) by Miss Cosh who also gave or bequeathed drawings to the National Library. Especially fine are the animal and bird pictures with the bushland background sketched in lightly with pen strokes while the animals are carefully drawn and fully coloured (ML and NLA). They are never stilted but appear to move naturally and are well grouped to form a balanced picture, e.g. a male bower bird and a blue wren full of character and movement (ML).

It is a tragedy that Atkinson’s fully illustrated book on the fauna and flora of New South Wales reputedly being prepared in Germany at the time of her death never appeared, more so that the paintings have vanished. She did, however, provide illustrations of animals and views for her articles in local journals. 'Notes on the Months’, signed L.A., which appeared occasionally throughout the first series of the Illustrated Sydney News was usually accompanied by engravings after her drawings: Magpies , for example, in the second issue (15 October 1853) and The Opossum (actually two) in January 1854, a subject very close to a surviving watercolour sketch (ML). Several were reprinted.

Some of Louisa Atkinson’s sketches were published in A Voice from the Country (1979) and Excursions from Berrima (1981). Louisa Atkinson of the Kurrajong , a booklet published by the Kurrajong Heights Garden Club in 1979 when a commemorative plaque to her memory was unveiled at Kurrajong, included two of her animal sketches: the eastern water rat and a delightful brush-tailed rock wallaby. Patricia Clarke’s revealing and sympathetic biography (1990) is well illustrated, but again the drawings are small black-and-white reproductions. Atkinson’s fine technique in both watercolour and pen-and-ink will only be fully appreciated when printed in facsimile. A beginning was made with Elizabeth Lawson’s book using Atkinson originals in ML.

Crittenden, Victor
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