Remembering Nancy Adams

My first two years in New Zealand were spent in the shadow of Mount Eden, one of more prominent (and, I’d say, beautiful) dormant volcanoes scattered around Auckland to make the landscape more interesting. So many neighborhood houses marked property boundaries with heavy blue-grey stones the mountain had ejected once upon a time, and there’s a porous charcoal wall near the motorway on Gillies Avenue that seems to have melted out of a surrealist painting. We had the good fortune to live just around the corner from the vibrant village, two doors down from the fruit and veg shop, across the street from a busy café and a two-minute walk from one of the city’s best bookstores: Time Out. For months they displayed a copy of Albertus Seba’s exquisite Cabinet of Natural Curiosities (Taschen) in the front window, and I’d step inside regularly to pore over those glossy images, so carefully etched and thoughtfully colored and yet still a bit unbelievable. I loved the underwater life best of all, and wasn’t alone in my assessment: someone had the good sense to stick coral, crimson and as articulate as a lightning-struck tree, on the book’s cover.

(Taschen have since issued a slightly truncated but much more affordable reproduction of Seba. I urge you to buy it or borrow it from your local library, explore its pages and wonder at the world we call home and the creatures with whom we share it.)

Nancy Adams, curator and artist, Dominion Museum, Wellington, New Zealand. Dominion post (Newspaper): Photographic negatives and prints of the Evening Post and Dominion newspapers. Ref: EP/1965/2189-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Really, this is all to say that I’ve found a new hero in Te Papa’s archives: botanist, artist and curator Jacqueline Nancy Mary Adams. I’m embarrassed to admit I hadn’t heard of her a month ago. Born in Levin in 1926, Adams studied botany and zoology at Victoria University of Wellington. She was a member of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research’s botany division until 1959, when she joined the Dominion Museum — Te Papa’s predecessor — as assistant curator of botany, later specializing in marine algae. After her retirement in 1987, Adams continued on as an honorary research associate. Other honors include the Loder Cup (1964), appointment as QSO (1989) and, later, CBE (1995), and the 1990 New Zealand Medal. She was a prolific artist, illustrating nearly forty publications on native plants, alpine life, trees and shrubs. Her 1994 work Seaweeds of New Zealand: An Illustrated Guide received the Montana Award for best book of the year, and a traveling exhibition celebrated her artistry in the early 2000s, curator Fiona Hall noting that Adams “responds as an artist to the thing she’s working with.” In 2006, shortly before her death the following year, Te Papa acquired a large collection by Adams: sketches, etchings, watercolors, drawings and other ephemera numbering in the thousands.

Nancy Adams, Campanulaceae – Lobelia roughii, Te Papa Tongarewa, CA000888/003/0100

Now that facts and dates are out of the way, I want to talk a bit about this incredible collection. My new post-PhD (pipe?) dream is to edit a book showcasing some of Adams’s most remarkable work, boggling at the variety, making you boggle and then making my own contribution to the project with words: tying in the significance of those plants, their homes and uses and myths and patterns, the stories of those sea-tossed, sun-seeking scraps that bring new perspective on the New Zealand mantra to harden up. They’re like people, these sketches and paintings and the lives they represent, each weathering storms and droughts and changing seasons in their own peculiar way. They’re like us. In the absence of sufficient time and — for now — the backing and funding that a project of this magnitude requires, I’d like to introduce you to some of them here.

Nancy Adams, Gymnophlaeceae – Nemastoma laciniata, N. laingii and Schizymenia novae-zelandiae, Te Papa Tongarewa, CA000892/009/0003

There are pointillistic representations, simple ink on paper that shimmers with precision; there are watercolors awash in subtle shifts of color alongside more straightforward, traditional paintings. There are strange impressionistic pieces that make mosaics of stones. Perhaps most charming are the works we were never meant to see, the in-between art with bright spots of green and gold and crimson bursting out from the center, surrounded by tentative strokes of graphite, soft shading and, still, that sense of realness, of the thing the art represents coming-to-be on paper. They give us insight into the creation of botanical publications, the way artists had to employ a designer’s eye when thinking about the composition of each plate. I’m reminded of Plato’s forms by pieces that do not faithfully recreate a particular specimen but instead tell us about the species, combining male and female, distance and proximity, bloom and silhouette.

Schefflera digitata with a star at its heart.

Nancy Adams, Araliaceae – Schefflera digitata, Te Papa Tongarewa, CA000888/032/0002

Mount Cook National Park perfectly encapsulated.

Nancy Adams, Cover design for Mount Cook National Park booklet, Te Papa Tongarewa, CA000888/018/0001

Precision and beauty…

Nancy Adams, Unidentified species, Te Papa Tongarewa, CA000888/005/0170

Nancy Adams, Podocarpaceae – Prumnopitys ferruginea (3 December 1959), Te Papa Tongarewa, CA000888/043/0012

Nancy Adams, Verbenaceae – Vitex lucens, Te Papa Tongarewa, CA000888/004/0109

Nancy Adams, Mountain berries, Te Papa Tongarewa, CA000888/028/0001

Nancy Adams, Myrtaceae – unidentified species, Te Papa Tongarewa, CA000888/005/0038

Nancy Adams, Brown Seaweed – Unidentified species, Te Papa Tongarewa, CA000892/001/0103

In a 2003 interview with Adams, Janet Mcallister asked the 77-year-old botanical artist how she would like to be remembered. “Not at all,” she says, sounding faintly horrified at the prospect. At the risk of going against her wishes, I will remember her as the sort of woman I’d like to be: one who sees the world, one who cares for it, one who never fools herself into thinking she lives — we live — in isolation.

Nancy Adams, Forest Scene, Te Papa Tongarewa, CA000888/027/0002

Further links:
Nancy M. Adams, a Digital NZ set I’ve compiled of some of her work
The N.M. Adams collection at Te Papa
Ross Ferguson’s obituary for Adams in New Zealand Garden Journal, vol. 10, no. 1 (2007)
Nancy’s Garden, Janet Mcallister’s review of the touring exhibition of Adams’s art in The Listener, Issue 3312 (2003)
The Botanical Drawings of Nancy Adams, the exhibit running between 2003 and 2006
Paula Martin’s biography of Adams in Lives with Science: Profiles of Senior New Zealand Women in Science
Nancy M. Adams in the New Zealand Electronic Text Collection

Nancy Adams, Ranunculaceae – Anemone fulgens, Te Papa Tongarewa, CA000888/001/0151

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