Mee was one of the 20th century's most accomplished botanical artists. She was
British and lived almost half of her life in Brazil. Margaret is best remembered
for her meticulous compositions of Amazonian flowers, many of them extremely rare
and some now bearing her name.
life had many peaks. She had strong political leanings and made her first mark
in the 1930s. In the late 1960's Margaret's talent as an artist created a stir
in London and in 1988 she became a household name coast to coast in the USA. The
lavishly illustrated book In Search of Flowers of the Amazon Forests*
had just been published when in one of those quirks of a life she died in
a car accident in England. This is the story of my search for the woman behind
a face which charmed millions. The quest began in 1970 and reached four continents
READ THE INTRODUCTION
from the introduction. March 1987. Brazil , Rio de Janeiro.
A grey morning with gentle rain was pushing away the sun and skimpy bikinis.Traffic
outside the apartment slicked noisily along a road glazed to a mirror by summer
The voice was
clear, assured , positive and could have been from one of the British 'counties'.
Her accent was easily recognisable. No positive regional inflection and just a
hint of nasal expression, I placed it immediately. Some voices in Britain would
be far stronger and regarded as 'plummy'. She had been in Brazil for thirty five
years. "Margaret Mee?" I asked, the 'phone line crackled and clicked
once. " Yes. I'm Margaret. Is that Tony? " She had been expecting my
call. After a long trip through Venezuela I was in Rio lodging with two young
teachers, Sally Webster and Laurie Henderson from the British School in Botafogo
a residential part of the old city. Both were long time friends and Sally had
had been in touch with Margaret well in advance of my arrival..
back to the earlier 1980's' I had travelled through much of Amazonia and Brazil
had been the staging post. More than twenty trips had taken me to all the countries
bordering the river. At times my itinerary had been a travel agent's nightmare.
Or more often than not I fixed the details on 'the hoof ' crossing seldom used
borders in search of 'a story'. More films and a BBC book 'Lizzie' blossomed
from the travels. 'Why not something about Margaret Mee? ' As I hunted around
bars, cheap hotels and other far more academic institutions the same question
was asked time and time again. Margaret seemed to be known everywhere. I shouldn't
have been surprised as ' you will find information in the strangest places' had
been the dictum of a great friend and mentor, Ralph Izzard a top Daily Mail of
of the advice from Tony Wellington in the Rio embassy all those years ago my next
move was clear. I had to meet Margaret and hear her tales. While I was travelling
in Venezuela Margaret had been in London for a second hip operation and by juggling
my schedule at a distance Sally Webster had fixed a meeting. "Margaret, you
know why I have stayed on in Rio? "'. She was quick. Possibly a shade too
anxious? Or so I felt on reflection. "You would like to make a film and write
a book about me? "Yes. That's what I have in mind " Sally had explained
enough to help the introduction and my past books told the rest. The meeting was
confirmed for Thursday afternoon "Come as soon as Sally has finished school"
Margaret suggested " - and we can have some tea",. The voice, the time
and expression conjured up a vision of green lawns and well kept flower beds somewhere
close to London. They were framed with cucumber sandwiches of finely sliced bread,
perhaps a biscuit or two and a silver teapot. "Sally knows the way and Greville
can get you home" and she added " tell the driver to turn off at the
padaria" - a breadshop was our marker.
12th March 1987 5.15 pm and daylight was fading
hailed a cab outside the apartment in Botafogo. Sally, slim, naturally auburn
and athletic had been in Rio for four years. A biology teacher she had trained
at a college near Bath the historic Georgian city in the west of England. Sally
knew Margaret from British community social events.
this short journey I felt totally at ease. Sally directed the driver " Rua
Julio Otoni in Santa Teresa - it's best from Rua Laranjeiras and then Alice"
She was positive and the driver followed her instructions. We rushed into the
darkness dodging lights, pedestrians and a wild assortment of overcrowded buses.
Fortunately it was just a short distance to sanity or so it appeared on the surface.
Once away from the main avenue the road climbed to Santa Teresa an old residential
suburb some several hundred feet higher and cooler. At one time a vibrant flower
filled rainforest covered the hills but by 1987 Santa Teresa had become a 'collectors
item'. Families from the grander houses had long since moved to other parts and
the suburb was decaying with little dignity. Mugging and house robbery were the
stock in trade of the fleet of foot. Only the foolhardy walked up the hill."Take
care when you get out" Our cab driver was kindly. He had been robbed a number
of times. "The last time it was at gunpoint from where you are sitting"
He was disconcertingly cheerful.
halted on the left of the road in front of a high wall where only a small oval
enamel plate bearing a number identified a house. As I paid, Sally found the bell
hidden carefully above eye level.
door in the wall was opened by Greville Mee. Bright eyed, slightly stooping and
greying. " Come in. You're right on time". He had a welcoming, engaging
smile. We followed him up a narrow stone path to the house. Their home was unpretentious.
Apparently just two storeys though built on a steep hillside with a garage and
another room slipped in below like a basement. "We added those." Greville
explained. The front door was open and Margaret resting on a walking stick greeted
us. A kiss on the cheek for Sally and a firm handshake, then a kiss for me. I
had to bend down as she could not have been much more than my shoulder height.
Dressed simply with a skirt and blouse of her own design she wore a green velvet
bow in her hair. Her eyes were striking. Clear and sparkling with heavy lines
of mascara above. "How wonderful you're here" she smiled, almost reassuringly.
Her eyes did much of the talking. "I hope you will like my work. Would you
like a coffee or something stronger?" I chose a beer. No point in starting
with the wrong impression.
moved through a small pale coloured entrance hall. A few mementos of her travels
lay on a low glass topped table and I recognised a small white and brown pottery
figure from the Carajas, a Amazonian tribe. It was the image of a pregnant women.
Turning left we entered a sitting room. Not large, it was perhaps about 15 feet
on each side. On a rainy, cool night it was cosy and welcoming . Bookshelves were
under the window. Dark, leather covered chairs were comfortably worn. Prints hung
on the on the walls. "This reminds me of England" I said waiting for
a response." Do you miss it?"
was intense in her reply " At times, Yes" and then carefully "Now
we are older we may return. Greville is not very well. We were robbed a short
while ago. This lovely place is not what it used to be but I still have lot to
do". Her greyish hair still had some colour and as she talked her blue eyes
sparkled. She was one hundred percent alive. At 78 Margaret Mee was excitement
and adventure wrapped in a package designed to make most grandmothers feel ancient.
talked for almost an hour. It was one of those exchanges in which each side checked
the credentials of the other. First we covered the places we had been or where
our paths had crossed, mostly in Amazonia. Then the friends we had in common.
Margaret had my book 'Lizzie' on her shelf. She had just been given the copy by
her friend Sally Duchess of Westminster, the wife of the late Fourth Duke and
at the time Britain's wealthiest family. Sally Westminster lived in Gloucestireshire
close to Badminton, home of the exclusive Beaufort Hunt followed by the Royal
family. I wondered if she had any thoughts on the subject of the British countryside
and fox- hunting and decided it would be a diversion. The question could wait.
Margaret had spent some days with the duchess while recuperatiing.
I know Sally? I admitted I didn't although we had an informal contact through
a Peruvian charity. Our chat was at times revealing and at others simply a mutual
understanding of the politics behind the rape of Amazonia. "It's disgusting.
Such beauty and it's being torn down for profit" She shook slightly with
her pent up anger. I could see we would have a lot to talk about."You must
now see my work " she drew me to a table where folders of paintings had been
laid in preparation and for another hour I was enthralled. Here was the flora
of Amazonia, one of the world's most threatened rainforests presented in a way
to challenge every normal perception.
on earth has this not been published before? " I asked the question and she
had the reply "Five publishers have turned it down - well, I suppose one
almost started but then went quiet" she turned to Greville "We have
not heard anything for ages. have we Grev?"
It was humbling. Such work, many admirers and no publisher. Where could I start?.
Greville turned to a wooden cabinet containing large folio books standing upright.
" This is the one which the Tryon Gallery published in London in the 1960's".
set the heavy volume on the table and carefully turned to page after page of Brasilian
flowers, each interleaved with tissue. The evening continued at the same pace
with examples of her art, short stories, a draft chapter or two in faint typescript.
Her machine must have been old. We looked at a score of fading photos and talked
about her life and family. " I feel the book and television film must not
be pure flowers. Tryon did that as a folio"
mind was almost made-up. Margaret was a marvellous raconteur and would captivate
a television audience. The book was less certain. Did it have an end? Could we
devise something? We made a stab at some ideas and I said I would 'sleep on them'.
"But what about your family? and how did you begin this wonderful career?"
Marion my wife had always asked me to look at 'people and what makes their life'.
I had already written about and filmed the work of two women and Margaret was
the obvious choice for a third.
you mind if I pry a little?". After almost thirty years of prying I decided
on the direct approach. After all, we had talked for almost two hours. "
Can you tell me something about your family?"
laughed with her eyes " Well. There's not to much to tell " That was
a challenge which I fell for. " Your family... home and what you did before
you came to Brazil?" I pushed on "Where were you born?" It was
if I had opened a sluice gate. She didn't stop. " I was born in Chesham a
small town in Buckinghamshire. Such a lovely county with woods, hills and delightful
streams". And the family? " Two sisters and a brother. It was my younger
sister Cath who was ill in São Paulo, here in Brasil and I came out to
had been told the story by some of her closest friends in Rio who knew some of
the details. "Our father was a 'Hendersen' and always said he had connections
with a Swedish seafaring family. I can't tell you much more. You could ask my
brother John. He's the family historian." We paused while she gave me an
address. I scribbled a note on my pad. "My mother was a 'Churchman' from
the old East Anglian family". She was referring to the family famous for
a long vanished brand of cigarettes. "Our coat-of-arms is a cockerel on a
bale of straw" she said referring to the design given to the Churchman family
by the College of Arms in London. Such 'armorial bearings' was an honour with
a tradition of many centuries granted only to direct descendents. Margaret suddenly
became cautious and leant forward "we are supposed to have connections with
the Knights Templar".
and religion were a fiery mix to which I was addicted. Its mystical and often
violent portrayal drew a wide audience so perhaps this was a starting point. "
How sure are you about the 'connections' ". I had many reasons for being
unsure of family mythology, not least because somebody pointed out that half of
British people could be related to royalty by virtue of the deeds of past errant
princes. The Templars or Knights Templar, sometimes known as the Poor Knights
of Christ were a military order which began life in the 12th century after the
capture of Jerusalem from the Moslems.. Their influence spread across Europe and
with wealth piled on them by supporters they became trusted bankers. The following
centuries saw many ups and downs of their standing but the tradition continued.
In London the headquarters of the order had been at the Middle and Inner Temple
at the upper end of the street known as Strand close to the river Thames.
can't tell you much because my memories of the story date back to life in Chesham,
but I can tell you it's all on the Churchman side of the family" She drew
me across the room to the base of some stairs A framed 'sampler', a piece of Victorian
embroidery hung on the plain wall. " It's one of the few pieces I have from
my family. The robbers didn't take it. We kept it in London throughout the war
and I brought it out during the 'sixties. The frame was simple and clearly not
of the same pedigree. Thinking aloud she said, wistfully " But my beautiful
Dresden clock was stolen"
The cloth was fading yellow and fine needlework formed an inner frame of a pattern
which could have been flowers and leaves. It was a simple design which was repeated
to surround lines of carefully needledworked words. 'Great God the heaven's
well ordered frame, Declares the glories of thy name, There thy rich works of
wonder shine..........' Altogether a dozen lines of a hymn by Isaac Watts
one of the most prolific 17th century writers. Below was embroidered 'Elizabeth
Felizarda Millne 9 years old 1822'. "She was my great grandmother, the mother
of my grandfather John.. Henry.. Churchman. Margaret emphasised the Henry. "Why
the Felizarda? It has a Spanish 'feel' ". My television eye was flicking
across some exotic locations. The Templars and a name like Felizarda must add
up to a fascinating background. Margaret responded simply " There were Spanish
links somewhere but I can't tell you more you will have to ask John. My mother
was Isabella and the family knew her as 'Lizbelle' ".
hymn suggested a religious upbringing and would tie in with the Templars. "
Do you know much about the Churchmans of those times". She thought for a
moment, pausing as if to re-live and event. It was a device which I saw many times
later. " I remember only stories from my grandfather, John Henry. He was
the black-sheep of the family, the one who was penniless and lived an exciting
White who became his wife made him wait. It was something to do with religion.
She fended my question as now she was leading the story. "You may have to
ask John". Her eyes were talking again " While he was waiting he travelled
the world to places like New Zealand and San Francisco.Her memory was extraordinarily
vivid and she told the story with breath and pauses of an accomplished actress."
He took us children on his knee. One on one side and another on the other".
would say A litttle pinch of salt and I'll tell you a story. And then he began
tales of adventure. Encounters with footpads or things about storms or animals
. It was pure excitement" I could see what he had meant by a 'pinch of salt'
as perhaps there was more invention than truth and the grandchildren loved it.
Margaret remembered her mother's reaction " Don't stuff the children with
all that nonesense, she would say, And of course we asked for more" Clearly
John Henry had not followed the path of the Templars so what about Margaret herself?
I could not delve to deeply so I asked if her father, a Henderson had been religious.
The answer was a simple simple 'no' to which she added " he went to church
just three times, to be baptised, for his wedding and for his funeral' I saw a
slight twinkle in her eyes and wondered about the salt.
sampler was beautifully executed, perhaps just as they should be but enforced
diligence aside the work for a nine for a nine year old showed exceptional artistic
talent. "That comes down the Churchman side too. My aunt Nell, my mother's
sister Mary Ellen." she paused ".. Churchman was an artist. These days
you would call her an illustrator. She did some work for Susan, Countess of Malmesbury".
Here she threw another name from the Who's Who of British gentry into her story,
the countess was one of the much loved writers of the Victorian age. . I was beginning
to have thoughts, not suspicions, they came later, but how and why had Margaret
chosen to stay in Brazil? The sister Cath she came to help was dead and the rest
of her family was in England " We planned to stay for a short while"
Grevlle nodded "we never expected to stay it simply happened" He said.
left the Churchmans and turned again to the Brazilian theme. " When we arrived
in 1951 São Paulo was tiny and the rainforest came to the edge of the city.
It was there I began to paint flowers. She turned to Greville " You remember
those days when we walked by 'the bonde line - the tramline - Grev?. Again
he nodded. This was Margaret's story and he was there to help. "We had wonderful
walks and as I drew more and more flowers my work was noticed and things just
developed from there' And here we are" She spread her hands across a pile
of books, paintings some sketches and a map. It had been a fascinating evening
and I had just one more question.
said you had a lot more you wanted to do. Can you tell me briefly. Is there any
one single ambition you have not fulfilled?" I was looking for an end to
the story. There had to be something special to be the goal for any televison
film or even a good book. It did not take more than a minute of Amazon talk to
know the answer. " I never managed to paint the flowering Strophocactus.
That's a cactus which flowers just once a year in the middle of the night in the
middle of the Amazon forest". She produced a sketch and turned to a painting
in a massive folio book. " Here it is. I have seen the dead, wilting flowers.They
die in the morning light. But I have never managed to find the flower." I
could see it was a challenge though I knew she could have no idea of what had
flashed through my mind.
Margaret," I made a note on my pad,"You have given me so much food for
thought I have indigestion" We laughed and Greville watched carefully. "
I will be in touch again early tomorrow. I am sure I can offer you a contract
to publish the book and a promise to work on a television production" For
reassurance I added " I'm staying with Sally and Laurie so they'll not let
me escape. First I need to talk with Marion and colleagues in England. They are
about three hours ahead of us so I will 'phone you soon after breakfast. Will
nine o'clock be alright?"
Perfect. We are awake early I have to see my humming birds. They visit the flowers
at certain times each day" She leant on her stick and we shook hands. A deal
was struck.. And one I which even in my most freewheeling moments of fantasy I
could never have imagined the way it would unfold. "Greville will take you
down the hill. You'll never get a taxi" Greville led us to the basement garage
" Peg warned me so don't worry. Watch out for the step"
noticed he used the familiar Peg, short for Peggy , a name which at one time was
often used for 'Margaret'. The elderly cream coloured Brasilian built 'Brasilia',
a Volkswagen clone started noisily and we clambered in. Greville shut the garage
door as he said to keep out the 'thieves'. We raced down the hill taking the sharp
curves with a skill and speed to send Fittipaldi and any local taxi driver back
to driving school or their graves.
left us breathless by the kerb opposite the padaria, the breadshop marker.
It was now completely dark, wet and tropically cool. "Thanks Greville. Thanks
for everything". He roared back into Rua Alice. We hailed taxi " How
about some food Sally? I need a moment to think". She nodded weakly and we
decided on Cafe Lamas reputedly the oldest restaurant in Rio. I knew the restaurant
from many times past and was only a block or two from the old British Embassy
where I had met Tony Wellington in 1971. "That" I said " was some
evening. What an incredible story"
sat at a plain square table with a paper cloth. " Some wine for you? I offered
Sally. "No thanks I'll join you in a 'caip' and then move on to a fruit juice".
'Caip' was our local slang for a caipirinha, a mixture of cane alcohol,
sugar and lime. The title 'cocktail' is far too sophisticated for this rocket
fuel powered Brasilian aperitiv. Lamas was busy and we had a table by the wall
with a mirror and pictures of old Rio.The waiters wore jackets and the menus were
plastic covered.We settled on some meat in mineira style with kale and
rice. Something simple. I opened my notebook. It was a 'working supper'.
sure you have heard much of that before" My statement was as much a question.
" Not really" Sally replied, there's a lot of chat among people here
but Margaret does keep herself to herself. We see Greville far more and he is
at most of the parties." My questions had been directed towards Margaret
so I was not surprised when I found my notes contained hardly a mention of her
husband. That would be for later once the book was confirmed, noting I must 'phone
Marion in the morning . Margaret seemed the perfect Englishwoman with all the
bearing and grace of a passing era. Such genteel women are few and far between
in real life. I had met a handful of the slowly declining, numbers of wealthy,
often eccentric families portrayed in television dramas. In Victorian life they
had been travellers, naturalists, collectors and painters. I could not help thinking
of the success of a famous series 'Upstairs Downstairs' where the family in the
series lived royally in the grand house above while the servants had their life
in the basement. Their 'town houses' formed the greater part of central London.
Margaret, quite remarkably seemed to be firmly from the past yet with her head
focused on the present. No wonder she was loved in the British community. Here
she was alive and well and at 78 still intent on wandering in the distant reaches
of the Amazon.
'A Short Walk in Mayfair'