Olive Coates Palgrave

Schotia brachypetala by Olive Coates Palgrave

Reproduced with the kind permission of the artist’s estate and the Director and the Board of Trustees, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

They fitted a pram with mosquito netting and ‘‘I often wondered what was going through their little minds as they sat or lay so contentedly watching the pattern of leaves above them, sometimes dancing in the breeze, sometimes still, the drifting clouds too, movement which rivets the attention of the young.’’

She started her work on painting indigenous trees in real earnest when Deric, the eldest son, was six years old, about 1923. Their Outings from then on had purpose, as well as pleasure, as she writes: ‘‘We went far afield to get specimens for my paintings. Each outing was carefully planned choosing a different place each time. Our equipment consisted of a large bucksail, an axe, a spade, water bag, coil of thick rope, hanks of sash cord and fishing line, a weight, usually a large bolt, a tin of water for specimens, a butterfly net and killing bottle, rugs and cushions, large kettle and last but not least the ‘skoff-box’ laden with plenty of food.’’

Her mémoires of their bush excursions are delightfully English: ‘‘Nothing is more fascinating than to go off the beaten track and spend a day under large shady trees by the side of a little stream running through granite formation. Granite water is always curiously cool in the shade, milky in colour and incidentally makes the most delicious tasting tea. [...] A most exciting game of cricket can be played using a large sausage from the Sausage-tree, Kigelia africana as bats and Monkey-oranges as balls.’’

When she had painted about 100 trees, it was decided she should try getting them published. ‘‘This was no easy matter so The National Publications Trust was formed for this purpose. At that stage, the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland was created [1953], so the number of paintings was increased to 110 and the book Trees of Central Africa (1956) ultimately included trees from Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) as well as Nyasaland (Malawi),’’ Meg Coates Palgrave tells me. She was awarded the MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) for the book.

Olive Coates Palgrave was already widowed, Heneage having died in 1941, and her sons launched into the world: Deric was in the civil service, Keith studied botany and zoology at Rhodes University in South Africa and became a biology teacher at the redoubtable Prince Edward boys' school for many years before becoming inspector of schools, and Paul (husband of Meg) a medical laboratory technologist. Olive passed away not long after, in August 1963, in Mutare (then called Umtali), Zimbabwe.

The safekeeping of Olive's paintings at the Kew Archives is thanks to Meg - these marvellous paintings were mislaid for 25 years, gathering dust in the Prime Minister's vault! ‘‘When the book was published,’’ Meg says, ‘‘the Prime Minister at the time (either Sir Godfrey Huggins or Sir Roy Welensky) was unable to attend the launching ceremony but said he would like to see the paintings and that was how they found their way into the vault. In 1980 the vault was cleared out for the new incumbent [Robert Mugabe, then Zimbabwean PM] and fortunately the ‘clearer out’ recognised the name and contacted Keith.’’ Meg insisted that the paintings be sent to Kew, which is where they today reside and where they will hopefully be chosen, from amongst its 200 000-strong art collection, to be shown at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art.