Botanical illustration reached its first peak of achievement in the century between 1750 and 1850. During this period great discoveries were made in biology and horticulture, and printing techniques advanced considerably, allowing these illustrations to be reproduced and disseminated. The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew were founded in 1759, and by the 1770s had significant holdings of exotic plants, brought back from exploratory voyages.
Margaret Meen was employed to document the new plants being grown at Kew, and also exhibited watercolours at the Royal Academy between 1775 and 1785. A watercolour by her of a bunch of dahlias is now held in the library at Kew, and is a crucial record of the first dahlias to be introduced from Mexico, before they were ‘improved’ by British breeders. She was patronised by Queen Charlotte, who was instrumental in the development of Kew, and seems to have taught both Queen Charlotte and her daughter, Princess Elizabeth. Botanical illustration, despite its scientific importance, was widely regarded as a suitably genteel activity for ladies, and Meen spent much of her time as a tutor to wealthy young women, as well as teaching botanical illustration in a school in Notting Hill.
Amongst her pupils was Maria Smith, later Marchioness of Northampton, and her niece, Emma Smith, who later married Jane Austen’s biographer nephew. Maria Smith married Charles Compton, 1st Marquess Northampton, on 18 August 1787. Thirty-six of the drawings in this group are signed 'M:S' and dated between 1784 and 1787, while nine are signed 'M:C' and dated from 1787 onwards. It was Maria who put together the present album, including her own work, alongside that of her tutor, and some others. Although very little is known about her as an artist, she may well have worked at Kew alongside Meen.
Subjects include: Cactus Phyllanthus, Portulaca Fruticosa, Aquilegia Canadensis (red columbine), Dracene Ferox, Plumbago Rosea, Mimosa, Justicia Coccinea, Portlandia, Poinciana Pulcherrina, Anenome, Geranium peltatum, and Rhodedendron.