As you may have seen in BHL’s blog yesterday, The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, has been partnering with the Oak Spring Garden Foundation to digitize works by women botanical artists held in Kew’s archives. One of these talented but largely unknown artists is Margaret Meen – whose botanicals graced the walls of royal palaces and scientific academies. In fact, though little remembered or written about today, Meen’s botanicals and her prowess as an instructor of fledgling artists left a lasting impression on British botanical illustration.
Margaret Meen was born sometime around 1751 in the English county of Suffolk, but lived most of her life in London in order to better sustain herself as a working artist and teacher. Though it is not known where or how Meen developed her skill as an artist, her brother Henry was Prebend of Twyford and also taught at St. Paul’s, indicating that Margaret most likely came from a family of some wealth and standing and thus would have had access to an education in the arts. Certainly Henry’s status in London allowed Margaret to come into contact with the upper echelon of British aristocracy, and Meen’s talent as an artist was soon recognized by the royals.
One of her most celebrated patrons, in fact, was Queen Charlotte—wife of George III—who wrote in her diary in 1789 that she “drew with Miss Mean [sic] from 10 till one,” and who most likely purchased a painting of flowers that now hangs at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
Additionally, the queen’s daughter, Princess Elizabeth, was quite the budding artist herself, and her notable painting “Flower piece with bird’s nest” (1792) is modeled after Meen’s work purchased by the queen. The princess even maintained a friendly correspondence with Meen as late as 1822.
Aside from being the occasional tutor to artistically-inclined members of the royal family, Meen was a member of and exhibited her work at the Royal Academy from 1775 to 1785 and also with the Associated Artist in 1810. She was also employed to document the many new plants being grown in the Royal Gardens at Kew in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, using William Aiton’s Hortus Kewensis to name the species she illustrated. At this time, the Gardens at Kew were unrivaled in Britain for their botanical collection.
Her work, though largely unheralded, has been highly praised on the occasions that it is critiqued with special notice of Meen’s prodigious output and effective illustrative techniques. Also, usually mentioned with Meen’s name is her founding of the periodical Exotic Plants from the Royal Gardens at Kew (1790), which she dedicated to Queen Charlotte but which only lasted for two issues.
Finally, Meen spent a large part of her later years as a drawing tutor for families with the means to provide their children with one and as an instructor for larger groups of students at a school in Notting Hill, London. Among Meen’s pupils was the future Lady Northampton and Emma Smith, the future wife of Jane Austen’s nephew and biographer. Meen kept up her teaching until late in her life and as she never married or had children of her own, was especially determined to impart her artist lessons on to young minds in whom she saw latent talent.
Margaret Meen’s career as a botanical artist took her from the halls of Buckingham Palace to chambers of the Royal Academy and the schoolrooms of London. Over her long life she not only contributed to the furtherance of scientific knowledge through her botanical prints but also to the development of young artists from the most privileged to those who simply attended her classes in Notting Hill. Her artwork was appreciated by everyone from the Queen of England to its most revered scientists and its precocious young scholars. Though little remembered today, Margaret Meen’s art and legacy thus stands as an important part of late 18th and early 19th century British botanical history and deserves to be better celebrated today.
This post was updated on 22 February 2021 to correct birth and death dates for Meen and a typo in quoted materials from Queen Charlotte’s diary.
Blunt, Wilfrid and William T. Stearn. The Art of Botanical Illustration. New York: Antique Collectors Club Press, 1993. Originally published in 1950.
Mabey, Richard. The Flowering of Kew. London, UK: Ebury Press, 1988.
McDonald, Kelly M. “Margaret Meen: A Life in Four Letters.” Academia.edu.
Royal Collection Trust. “Description of ‘Flower piece with bird’s nest.’”