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Artist/Naturalist Pages

Edith Holden

During her lifetime, in the West Midlands of England, later in London, Edith Holden was known as an illustrator of children's books. By the mid-twentieth century, she was forgotten. In the mid-1970s Edith's great-niece, Rowena Stott, showed a treasured family heirloom, a book, to a publisher. This hand-made collection of Edith Holden's watercolors and nature observations from 1906 was published in facsimile in 1977 as The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady and by 2000 had sold more than six million copies.

A second book, titled Nature Notes of an Edwardian Lady ( Holden's Notebook for 1905), discovered late, was printed in facsimile in 1989.

When she was 35 years old, Holden created the original book not as a diary, but as a nature-observation model for her art students at Solihull School for Girls, in the Midlands, where she taught art on Fridays from 1906-1909. The book was actually a text for her teaching rather than the private manuscript the word "diary" suggests.

Holden's notes demonstrate a vast knowledge of the local ecology. Her lists of daily birds, butterflies and seasonal flowerings give us a window into a not-so-distant past when the destruction of nature was still young and largely invisible.

Edith Holden was a child of the Victorian period, but she came from an unconventional family. They were Unitarians with a strong interest in Spiritualism. Her father owned a Birmingham varnish factory and was known for his philanthropy. Mother wrote two biographies of female saints.Her four daughters were home-schooled in their early years. Three of the girls became painters and successful illustrators. Edith and two younger sisters earned scholarships at the Birmingham School of Art. Deciding to focus on animal painting, Edith spent her twentieth year studying with painter Joseph Adam at the Craigmill Art School near Stirling, in Scotland. Adam owned a farm, and there his students studied and painted animals.

Edith's oil paintings were often exhibited from 1890-1907 by the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists, and in 1907 and 1917, by the Royal Academy of Arts.

Women were not yet taken very seriously as artists in Holden's day. She and her contemporary Beatrix Potter, an accomplished mycologist and watercolor painter, only found visible success with illustrated children's books.

For some years Edith Holden kept notebooks of Nature Notes, what we today would call field notes and sketches;Edith's were filled with both words and paintings. Her 1906 model-book that we enjoy today was an elaboration of her years of nature notebooks, enhanced with poems apropos of the month, notes of specific daily observations, and a plenitude of watercolor studies. Since it was arranged by the calendar year, it was a record of the phenology of the Midlands in 1906.

Edith Holden's unconventional character is suggested by her decision at the age of forty to marry a man of thirty-three, a sculptor named Ernest Smith. It was 1911. The marriage was not approved by her family.The newlyweds moved to Chelsea, a part of London long an artists' quarter, where the couple associated with some of the leading artists of the day. Holden continued painting--her Young Bears Playing was exhibited at the Royal Society of Arts in 1917, as Mrs. Ernest Smith. Edith continued her work as an illustrator named Edith Holden.

March 16, 1920: Always fascinated with everything natural, Edith Holden was reaching out over a backwater of the Thames trying to break off a bough of chestnut buds when she fell into the water and perished. She was 49 years old. Ernest never quite recovered from his loss.

We are the richer for her precise written observations of her local flora and fauna and her fine watercolor studies. Beyond the beauty of her art, her books jolt us into a clear awareness of how very much of Nature we have lost.

Watercolors from both books, and sample Nature Notes, are presented below.

The Country Diary of 1906, published 1977
The Nature Notes of 1905, published 1989

Edith Holden's Phenology of the English Midlands by Month, 1905-1906
click images to enlarge

Hares in snow, January 1905
Blue tit, coal tit, great tit, January 1906

Goldcrests on Larch branch, January 1905
Winter Berries: Privit, Hips and Haws
Robin, Whitebreasts, and Snowdrops,
February 1906
Robin, crocus, pussy willow,and toad,
February 1905
February notes and Shrew, 1906
Gorse and E.B. Browning poem of gorse, 1906
Spring Plowing, March 1905

Song Thrush and nest, March 1906

Thrush and nestlings with egg and poem, 1906
Chaffinch and Daffodils, 1906
Pixie cup lichens, detail, March 1905

Hare,pasque flowers,violets, primroses,
April 1905
Dusky Thrush and Spring Flowers
April 1906
Spring blossoms and butterflies, April 1906
Swallows and purple orchis, April 1906

Sheep and Gorse on Dartmoor, May 1905
Chaffinch nest, May 1906
Whitethroats and nest, May 1906
Red campion and Wild Hyacinth, May 1906
Willow warbler feeding young, June 1906
Foxglove and trailing roses, June 1905
June notes and demoiselle damselfy, June 1906
Yellow Flag and demoiselle damselfly, June 1906
Water lily and Great dragonfly, July 1906
Blackberry and brown butterflies, July 1905
Kingfisher, July 1905
Red Admiral, detail, July 1906
Thistle flowers and Bees, July 1905
Yellow Water Lily and Rushes, July 1906
August, 1906, red grouse in Scotland
August 1905, Hawkweed and little blue butterfly
Song Thrush and Rowan berries, August 1906
Heather, Dodder, grasshopper,
August 1905, Dartmoor
Goldfinch eating thistle seed, August 1905
Goldenrod and Rose Hips, August 1906
Poppies, Harebells,and Mayweed, August 1906
House sparrows on oats, September 1906
Haws and Serviceberry
Sundew, Juniper berries, Sept. 1906
Rose Hips, Blackberries, Sept.1906
Bluebird, glowing Elm, October 1905
Yellow-hammers in stubble, October 1906
Mushrooms, October, 1906
Red Squirrel with beechnuts, October 1905
Bullfinches feeding on weed seeds,
November 1905
Starling and Rooks, November 1906
Green Woodpecker, November 1905
Toadstools, November 1906
Blackbird, Robin, Blue Tit, Ivy & Holly,
December 1906
Winter Wren and Hedge Sparrow, December 1905
Blackbird and Tits on Snow, December 1906
December Notes, 1906
Fox in winter pelage, December, 1905

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In Her Own Words

Edith Holden gave us many nature notes in the two books that survive her. Here is a small sample:

Jan.2,3: Sharp frost and a thick fog in the early morning. The fog cleared off about 9:30 and the sun shone brightly. Went for a country walk. Every twig on every tree and bush was outlined in silver tracery against the sky; some of the dead grasses and seed vessels growing by the roadside , were especially beautiful, every detail sparkling with frost crystals in the sunlight...

Feb.10: In the evening between 7 and 8 oclock saw the moon in the Western sky with Venus immediately below her and Jupiter a little above.

March 4: Coming home was struck by the colour of the catkins on the alder trees, that glowed in fiery red masses in the rays of the setting sun.

March 20: Went to the daffodill field again; the buds are just breaking into yellow. Found two thrush's nests, both in holly bushes; one nest was empty, the bird was sitting on the other. She looked at me with such brave, bright eyes, I could not disturb her, much as I would have like a peep at her speckled blue eggs...

April 11, at Dartmoor: In the afternoon I went up onto the moor to bring home a pony and foal. Both are delightfully picturesque in their shaggy winter coats, and I hope to begin their portraits tomorrow morning. Up on the moor the world seemed to be made up of sky and gorse--such acres of fragrant golden blossoms under a sky of cloudless blue.

April 12: Painted the pony and colt all morning in the field...Saw a beautiful peacock butterfly and found some purple orchis in bloom. The oil painting below shows shaggy Jess and her foal.

April 22: Watched the sun set behind the hills from the top of Yannadon Down. Gorgeous gold and purple clouds near the horizon and up above, clear golden sky. While we were watching, a hawk suddenly sailed into the sea of gold above the setting sun and remained stationary, poised on quivering wings for quite a long time, then it suddenly dived down into the purple shadows just below.

April 29: Saw a lovely little Hedge-sparrow's nest in a Gorse bush with four eggs in it. The Gorse was in full bloom and made a glowing contrast with the blue eggs in the mossy nest.

May 12: Had an endless tramp over the bog after the moor ponies. There were about half a dozen of them feeding among the gorse on the moor sloping down to Burrator Lake. They were all different colours, from black to light chestnut. One tiny mouse-coloured foal about a week old kept running in circles about its mother and skipping in the air like a lamb.

May. 19: The hedgerows are haunted by young fledglings, mostly blackbirds and thrushes. I saw one precocious young robin trying to capture a worm nearly three times as long as itself.

June 15: The birds still sing morning and evening, but there is not nearly such a full choir as a month ago. The cares and responsibilities of large families of hungry fledglings make too many demands on the time and attention of the anxious parents. It is very pretty to see the house martins sitting in the roadway. collecting mud for their nests. Their short-feathered legs look as if they had little white socks on.

August 17, in Scotland: Bright clear day, with wonderfully fine distant views. On the high ridge of hills between Aberfoil and the Trossachs I found the bright scarlet berries of bearberry growing among the heather, and sundew in flower. Found some gentian beside Loch Vennachar.

November 14,1906: The sun had a most remarkable appearance just before setting tonight. I never saw it look so large in my life. It was deep crimson, shaded with purple, which gave it a globular appearance. It looked like a huge fire-balloon suspended against a curtain of grey cloud.



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