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A botanical life

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Annabella Innes's diaries and intricate watercolours provide a revealing insight into the lives of Australia's colonial elite in the 1800s.

by Karolina Kilian, Curator, People and the Environment


Annabella's watercolour of a coastal morning glory (Ipomoea cairica)
Annabella's watercolour of a coastal morning glory (Ipomoea cairica), which she noted had entirely covered many of the trees around Lake Innes Estate. Port Macquarie Historical Society.

The early decades of colonial Australia bring to mind the severity and deprivations of convict life, but the cheerful diaries and botanical watercolours of young Annabella Innes (1826–1914) stand testament to a much more genteel existence among the wealthier settlers.

Our routine is; up at six, music from 7 to 8, then learn lessons till breakfast. I have also to gather and arrange flowers. In school room till lunch at one o'clock – then paint, read or work till 4 or later, when we go to the garden for fruit and walk till dark. I wish the days were twice as long.
Annabella Innes, Friday, 22 March 1844
Commelina watercolour
Commelina (Commelina cyanea).
Port Macquarie Historical Society.
Filled with a charming routine of jovial parties, rambling nature walks, private education and creative pursuits, Annabella's diaries vividly record a pleasure-filled life, though one not entirely devoid of the struggles and nuisances commonly encountered in the young colony of New South Wales. A prolific diarist from the age of 12, she chronicled her family's mixed fortunes and extensive travels within the colony, but found the time they spent at Lake Innes estate, from 1843 to 1849, particularly noteworthy.
Native frangipani watercolour
Native frangipani (Hymenosporum flavum).
Port Macquarie Historical Society.

Established with convict labour by her uncle, Archibald Clunes Innes, in the 1830s, the vast pastoral property was located 11 kilometres west of Port Macquarie and became the social hub of the nearby settlement. Archibald, a former army officer turned wealthy and influential landholder, created the estate with his wife Margaret, one of the highly educated daughters of Alexander Macleay, Colonial Secretary of New South Wales from 1825 to 1837. The Macleays, who themselves investigated and patronised the natural sciences, were part of the colony's social and academic elite, and Annabella flourished among their intellectual influence and societal networks.

During her stay at the luxuriant Lake Innes estate, Annabella joined her cousins under the dedicated tutelage of her aunt Margaret and took advantage of the estate's picturesque surrounds and progressive library, rejoicing in the steady flow of interesting visitors that her uncle's renowned hospitality attracted. This life in a thriving colonial household she faithfully recorded with youth's fresh perspective, describing both the habits of daily life and noteworthy events, such as a visit by the Governor of New South Wales, Sir Charles FitzRoy, and his viceregal entourage.

Annabella Innes
Annabella Innes around the time she lived at Lake Innes, 1840s.
Port Macquarie Historical Society.

Demonstrating her inquisitive nature and the Macleays' influence, Annabella also documented her own scientific interests – constantly detailing the surrounding natural environment and, for three weeks in March of 1843, recording nightly the presence of a 'splendid comet', which her aunt explained did not, despite popular local sentiment, signal the world's end.

Annabella's natural history observations were often accompanied by the production of finely crafted watercolours, which reflect a mix of her upper class education and the Macleay women's guidance. With drawing and painting the recommended occupation for daughters of the social elite, Annabella was classically trained in art by her Sydney schoolteacher. Like some professional artists of the time, however, Annabella rejected the practice of copying classical illustrations as stifling and inferior to painting directly from nature. Her aunt Fanny (Frances) Macleay – herself a very proficient botanical drafter and scientist, who contributed to Annabella's early education – and her aunt Margaret both nurtured this more scientific approach and shared their skills with the young artist. Annabella scoured the area for local plants to collect and render, often recording in her diary their names and related anecdotes, and capturing with her brush new examples of native flora.

Moreton Bay Bignonia watercolour
Moreton Bay Bignonia (Tecoma Jasminoides). Port Macquarie Historical Society.

In 1849, amid a decade of economic depression, Archibald was forced to abandon the estate and Annabella moved with her family south to Newcastle. Thereafter, she migrated to Scotland, where she published her diary, under her married name of Boswell, in the late 19th century.

The Landmarks gallery features a copy of this published journal, inscribed by the authoress, as well as an original diary she kept while living at Lake Innes, her photograph, and a sketchbook of her watercolours, dedicated to her mother. The Museum acknowledges the Port Macquarie Historical Society, which holds many of the treasures of Lake Innes estate, for its generosity in lending these significant objects for the exhibition.

Extract of an entry dated 16th March (1844) from Annabella's original diary
Extract of an entry dated 16th March (1844) from Annabella's original diary.
Port Macquarie Historical Society.

Transcript of the diary extract (above)

Saturday 16th March [1844]

All my spare time today was devoted to painting which is our present 'craze' before breakfast. I coloured a spotted flower which I sketched last night – we found it in our ramble yesterday – I have only seen two before, one at 'Early Flat' when we were on the way to Bathurst from Capita and which Miss Wallis, our first Governess sat down at once and painted. The other was found here by Captain Hope. It is a curious flower but not so pretty as a little lilac flower I drew today.

The diaries and watercolours of Annabella Innes are on display in the Landmarks gallery. A selection of objects and transcripts of diary entries are featured online at nma.gov.au/av/portmacquarie/#lake-innes-estate.