I’ve been going into Melbourne Uni over the last couple of weeks to read a thesis in their Special Collections room and I noticed this small exhibition on the first floor of the library. I could see what looked like some large sponges in the display cases, but when I looked more closely, they were old mushrooms. I’ve got to say, there’s not many things that look deader than a dead fungus. And that’s why, if you want to see its real colours and structure, you either need a photograph or a botanical drawing.
Source: National Museum of Australia
The illustrations in this collection were drawn by Malcolm Howie. There was a photograph of him on the wall, and he seemed a very young man, sitting rather awkwardly on the grass. He died at the age of 36, a victim of spinal muscular atrophy that rendered him unable to walk by the age of sixteen. Towards the end of his life, he could only make small movements of his wrist when painting.
His brother-in-law was Jim Willis, a botanist with the National Herbarium of Victoria with a strong interest in fungi. Willis published a booklet Victorian Fungi in 1941 that featured Howie’s illustrations, which went through several editions right through until 1962. Howie had died by this time.
It is likely that Willis sourced the fungi for him to paint, and all of Howie’s paintings have annotated details on them in Willis’ handwriting. Howie painted 200 life-sized species in total, and Ethel McLennan at the School of Botany at Melbourne University commissioned a series of 80 illustrations. These illustrations form the heart of this display.
There are specimens beside some of the paintings- and rather dessicated and shrivelled specimens they are too- and other botantical illustrations of fungi from rare books in the library’s collection.
It’s a small, rather weird but nonetheless beautiful collection of illustrations, tinged with sadness at the death of the artist at such a young age. The exhibition is on show until 28th June, with a series of talks about the illustrations running through May. The website is here, complete with a slideshow of some of his illustrations.
From Botanical Illustration to Research, Noel Shaw Gallery, University of Melbourne 27 March -28 June 2015