Show Summary Details

Page of
PRINTED FROM Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. © Oxford University Press, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single article in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy).

Mee [née Brown; other married name Bartlett], Margaret Ursulalocked

(1909–1988)
  • Anita McConnell

Mee [née Brown; other married name Bartlett], Margaret Ursula (1909–1988), political activist and botanical artist, was born on 22 May 1909 at The Crest, White Hill, Chesham, Buckinghamshire, one of three daughters of George John Henderson Brown (d. 1938), insurance clerk, and his wife, Elizabeth Isabella, formerly Churchman. Her early interest in art was fostered by an aunt who illustrated children's books, that in nature by her father, an amateur naturalist. Educated at Dr Challoner's Grammar School, Amersham, and the School of Art, Science and Commerce in Watford, she taught briefly at Liverpool before deciding to travel. She spent several months in Germany, at a time of active and highly visible persecution of socialists and Jews; in February 1933 she witnessed the Reichstag fire in Berlin and the succeeding Jewish boycott day, events which reinforced her own left-wing views. Margaret married, on 11 January 1936, Reginald Bruce Bartlett (b. 1905), son of Herbert William Bartlett, a clerk. Bartlett was a trade union activist, and Margaret herself became an ardent trade unionist. A passionate speaker at meetings she was a delegate for the Union of Sign, Glass and Ticket Writers to the Trades Union Congress of 1937, where she proposed a resolution for raising the school-leaving age.

The marriage was not successful, and after her father's death Margaret went to France, having to flee the country fifteen days after the outbreak of war. She spent the war years first as a machinist, then as a draughtswoman in the De Havilland aircraft factory at Hatfield, and divorced Bartlett in 1943. When peace returned she enrolled as an evening student at St Martin's School of Art, Westminster, where she met Greville Ronald Bosworth Mee (b. 1909), a fellow student who became her lifelong partner. He was the son of Albert Alexander Mee, painter. The portfolio she built up at St Martin's gained her a place, and a post-war grant, at the Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts in south London, 1947–9. Under the tuition of Victor Pasmore she learned the attention to detail and developed the style which was to characterize her later work.

In 1952, by which time Margaret had changed her name to Mee by deed poll, the Mees went to São Paulo, Brazil, where Margaret's sister was living, intending to stay for three or four years. She taught art at St Paul's, the British School, while Greville found work as a commercial artist. Margaret soon became captivated by the luxuriant tropical flora of the forests of the Serra do Mar in south-eastern Brazil; she began seriously to collect and paint, taking detailed notes and working in gouache, and in this wealth of subject material found her true vocation as a botanical artist. Before long she yearned to see the plants of the tropical forests, and, with a friend from the school, she set out in 1956 for Belém and her first experience of the Amazonian flora. It was the first of many expeditions which led her through most of the vast Amazon basin, relying on local guides, surviving the hazards of canoe travel, the local food or lack of it, the often dangerous and always troublesome insect life, and the occasional hostility towards a solitary white woman.

The São Paulo Botanical Institute encouraged Margaret's obsession for accuracy in botanical detail and colour, and sent her to the Mato Grosso, where she collected several plants new to science. She exhibited in Rio in 1958 and in London's Royal Horticultural Society, receiving the Grenfell medal, and henceforth worked as a freelance artist. Other exhibitions followed: São Paulo in 1964, and then Washington, which brought her support from the National Geographic Society for an expedition in 1967 to the 3000 metre Pico de Neblina, on the border of Brazil and Venezuela. She was the first woman to make the southern approach to this peak, but the route being badly eroded, the party was obliged to turn back at 1000 metres.

Unlike Amazon botanical artists before her, Margaret worked entirely from living plants. Her fifteen expeditions into the interior, mostly to Amazonia, involved travelling and living under the most primitive conditions. She would draw at night by torchlight to capture rare nocturnal flowers, and this immediacy gave her paintings an accuracy, depth, and colour unrivalled by her predecessors. Her travels coincided with the beginning of the commercial exploitation of the forest, and she expressed her fury at the damage caused to the land and its peoples. Margaret was back in London in January 1968 for the exhibition and launch of her book, Flowers of the Brazilian Forests, a folio edition of thirty-one paintings, for which the duke of Edinburgh was the patron. She returned to Brazil, fired by a fresh ambition to confront the threat to the Amazon Forest caused by the government's road building and mining programme. The Mees moved to Rio de Janeiro, where Margaret was able to paint from the living plants which she had sent back from her explorations.

A Guggenheim fellowship paid for two further expeditions to the lower Amazon, which yielded more new species. Margaret wrote a report for the Forestry Development Institute, drawing attention to the devastation around Manaus and the damage caused by unregulated trade in forest products. Her work was now internationally acclaimed. Honours accrued: in 1975 honorary citizenship of Rio, on 1 January 1976 the British MBE for services to Brazilian botany, in 1979 the Brazilian order of Cruzeiro do Sul, fellowship of the Linnean Society, 1986. The Brazilian government supported her travels in order to produce another book, Flowers of the Amazon, launched in Brazil in 1980, with an exhibition in London's Natural History Museum. During this visit, Margaret and Greville married, on 8 October.

Margaret's campaign against the environmental damage, with its pollution and loss of species, voiced on Brazilian television, was repeated in the USA when her Amazon Collection of sixty paintings, many of plants new to science, was exhibited at the Missouri Botanical Garden in 1986. This publicity led to an invitation to visit an opencast bauxite mine near Manaus, which she found far more destructive than the mining company had claimed, and an upstream botanical reserve, which yielded new species. Her ambition now was to paint the rare night flowering Selenicereus (Strophocactus) witterii, the Amazonian moonflower. The plant does not flower every year, and when it does, the flowers open for a single night. Near Manaus she located a plant with buds, and with a companion, waited through the night until it opened. She then sketched by the light of a fluorescent torch, taking the colours the following day from the now closed flower.

In November 1988 the Mees came to England for the launch of a book based on Margaret's diaries, Margaret Mee in Search of Flowers of the Amazon Forest (1988), and a major exhibition of her paintings at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Meanwhile she was setting up the Margaret Mee Amazon Trust, based at Kew, to assist Brazilian botanical students to study in the UK. On 30 November the Mees were travelling by car when they were involved in an accident at Seagrave crossroads, Leicestershire; Margaret suffered severe chest injuries and died later that day in Leicester Royal Infirmary. Although she subscribed to no religion beyond a respect for nature, a memorial service was held at Kew on 16 January 1989, with representatives of the duke of Edinburgh, the Brazilian government, and the world of botany attending. She was survived by her husband.

Sources

  • S. Mayo, Margaret Mee's Amazon: paintings of plants from Brazilian Amazonia (1988)
  • Margaret Mee, uma visão da Amazonia [leaflet]
  • The Times (2 Oct 1980), 17c
  • The Times (3 Dec 1988), 12f
  • M. Mee, Margaret Mee in search of flowers of the Amazon forests, ed. T. Morrison (1988)
  • private information (2004)
  • personal knowledge (2004)
  • R. Stiff, Return to the Amazon (1966)
  • b. cert.
  • m. cert.
  • d. cert.

Likenesses

  • photographs, repro. in Mayo, Margaret Mee's Amazon