By Wynne Brown
Author, The Forgotten Botanist: Sara Plummer Lemmon’s Life of Science and Art, (University of Nebraska Press, 2021), posted by Deborah Shaw
It’s like death to me to be idle...
So wrote the botanist and artist Sara Plummer Lemmon—back in 1870, long before she became an acknowledged botanical expert and illustrator. She’d recently arrived in Santa Barbara and was writing home to her little sister back East.
Born in 1836 in New Gloucester, Maine, Sara attended school in Massachusetts before moving to New York City, where she taught “calisthenics” (gym class) and private art lessons.
Her health had always been fragile, and driven by frequent bouts of bronchitis and pneumonia, she made the momentous decision to move, alone, to California.
There she not only taught herself botany—partly by drawing the unfamiliar plants—but also established Santa Barbara’s first library. In 1876, she met another amateur Western botanist, John Gill Lemmon, a Civil War veteran who’d moved to California to convalesce after being captured by the Confederate army and held prisoner in both the Andersonville Prison in Georgia and South Carolina’s Florence Stockade.
The two eventually married and then spent the rest of their lives traveling throughout the West. They’re credited with discovering three percent of Arizona’s vascular plants.
According to their letters, Sara illustrated hundreds of species, but tragically, most of her work has disappeared. She was the first woman allowed to speak to the all-male California Academy of Sciences, and after breaking through that ceiling, she was at the Academy often. She and JG both wrote about giving her work to that organization.
I believe many of Sara’s paintings were destroyed in the fires that gutted the California Academy of Sciences in the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake.
But not all were lost ...
Sara’s great-nephew, Harold St. John, a noted botanist in Hawaii, ended up with two boxes of her watercolors—most of them painted in 1881 during the Lemmons’ time in southeastern Arizona’s Huachuca Mountains.
In 2015, Harold’s granddaughter, Sara’s great-great-grandniece, Amy St. John, donated the works to the University of California and Jepson Herbaria Archives in Berkeley, California.
Back in 2017, I knew I wanted to write Sara Lemmon’s biography—and that I wanted to include photos of her work. So, to get photographs for the book I hadn’t yet written—and didn’t even have a contract for—I hired a local art conservator for a day to assess the work. Since Susan K. Filter treated John Wilkes Booth’s diary, I figured she could be trusted to handle Sara’s work!
Susan, my husband Dave Peterson, and I then spent a thrilling day examining Sara’s paintings.
Most are not finished paintings, and many are unsigned sketches. Some are not even by Sara—but that’s a story for another day. After so many years of being stored in Hawaii’s humidity, many of them are in sad shape.
But there are some gems:
In addition, all 276 pieces of artwork are jammed into these two boxes—lacking even any interleaving sheets—and are so fragile the archivists were reluctant to handle them in case the paper crumbled to dust. And, times being what they are, the archives have no funding to do anything with the works.
Back in 2017, Susan recommended the following strategy:
“Carefully place each artwork into a two-piece archival folder with 5mil melinex front and 20 pt. acid-free and lignin-free folder stock back to enable quick viewing and identification. (Gaylord Archival Catalogue, ZZZ-VF1824, 18” x 24”)
The folders should be placed in an archival box either ordered to the folder size, or a Gaylord Blue e-flute deep lid newspaper box.” (ZZ-EFNB20243, 20”X24 ¼”X3”H)
Basically, in conservator-speak, that means simply: “stabilize and re-house the work.”
That day five years ago, seeing Sara’s work, I realized I wasn’t just writing a book. It was clear to me even then that Sara and I would be joined for a long time. (Dave jokes that he married two women: Sara and me!)
I now think in terms of the Sara Lemmon Project:
Phase I: The Book
Phase II: The art preservation
Phase III: High-resolution scans of the paintings for botanical and art education
Why scan the paintings?
(a) To create a “catalogue raisonné” of Sara’s work. A print version would be prohibitively expensive. Instead, my vision is of a digital online catalog and thus available for anyone, anywhere, to view anytime—for free.
(b) Secondly, those digital images could be manipulated to erase the stains and brighten the faded colors to show what these paintings might have looked like the day Sara made them—while keeping the originals intact.
(c) Thirdly, the scans could be used to generate prints, which could be sold to fund more preservation or other projects involving botanical art and education.
Fast-forward to 2022. The Forgotten Botanist has been published, won awards, and even sold out the first printing in six months. I’ve been doing frequent presentations about Sara, always mentioning my goal of using the book proceeds to fund Phase II: getting archival boxes and protective sheets so that each piece can be conserved in the manner it deserves.
To my astonishment and absolute delight, donations are starting to come in to support the project: Between the Sabino Canyon Volunteer Naturalists, an anonymous donor, and book proceeds, $6,000 is now available for the work!
Susan Filter has retired—but says she’s happy to come out of retirement to conserve Sara’s artwork. At $1,500/day, that’s the most expensive part of the stabilization and re-housing.
The work is now scheduled, and we will begin in August!
We won’t know exactly how far the $6,000 will go until we see how many paintings fit in a box, but it should be enough to preserve at least thirty of the paintings. That’s a small fraction of the total, so I’m still accepting donations—of any size!—for Phases II and III, as well as suggestions for potential grants and funding agencies.
You can reach me by clicking here.
To stay updated on the project, you can subscribe to the Sara Lemmon Project newsletter here. It’s free, easy to unsubscribe, and I only send it out when there’s a new event or development. You can see a recent sample of the newsletter here.
I don’t know for sure? But I suspect the woman for whom it was “like death to be idle” would be pleased...