Margaret Ursula Mee was born in May 1909 near
Chesham, thirty miles west of London. She now lives in Brazil with her husband
Greville and, from the age of forty-seven, has travelled the Amazon more extensively
than any other woman. Her fifteen long journeys place her among the greatest of
all women travellers.
As an artist, Margaret Mee has created the world's
finest collection of Amazon paintings and sketches. When some were seen at a prestigious
exhibition of her work in London in 1968, art critic and historian Wilfrid Blunt
 ..said 'They could stand without shame in the high company of such
masters of the past as Georg Dionysius Ehret and Redouté ' Now more than
twenty years later some of the paintings and sketchbooks have an exceptional,
often distressing,value, depicting as they do species which have vanished with
the advance of civilisation. Over the past thirty years Margaret Mee has seen
irreversible changes occurring in the Amazon and modestly without drama, she has
the proof in her hands. She began her Amazon diaries in 1965, although it was
not until she was over seventy years old that she started to write this book.
Chesham in Buckinghamshire, with its history of being one of the most wooded parts
of Britain at the time of the Norman Conquest, was Margaret's first home. Her
father , George John Henderson Brown , was linked on his mother's side with a
Swedish seafaring family. Her mother, Isabella, or Lizbelle, was the eldest daughter
of John Henry Churchman of the famous East Anglian family whose connections reach
back to the sixteenth century. 
As a young girl, Margaret or Peggy
Brown grew up among the leafy byways of the Chiltern hillls. Life was never dull
with her two sisters , Catherine and Dora and a younger brother, John. And although
her father worked in the City, travelling daily to the Alliance Assurance Company
near the Bank of England, Margaret's home life was modest. The Browns never owned
a horse and trap like many neighbours and the nearest school was three miles away
at the industrial end of the town. So it was to everyone's delight that education
for the children was left in the hands of Lizbelle's sister, Ellen Mary Churchman,
an artist who illustrated children's books. Ellen, or Aunt Nell, and Lizbelle
had studied together at the school in north London founded by the pioneering feminist
Frances Mary Buss. That had been a time when 'Girls simply did not do such things'
and Margaret remembers her admiration for her aunt.
Ellen, who had been
partly deaf since she was fifteen, remained with the family on and off for years,
even during the Great War when the events and upheavals of the times disturbed
the Browns as much as any family in the land.George, who had fought with the City
Imperial Volunteers during the Boer War, was officially too old to enlist, but
he found a way into the army, and although never posted abroad he was far away
from home. His dogged insistence to serve the country, though not creating a family
rift at the time, led Lizbelle to close the Chesham house and move the children
Margaret, her sisters and brother were settled temporarily
in nearby Hove at a small school run on solidly Victorian principles by a formidable
headmistress, Miss Beatrice Cobbold. They remained there until after the war.
Miss Cobbold's report in December 1922 when Mararet was thirteen said: 'Botany:
Good progress made' - Margaret was sixth in the class. And for 'Drawing' Miss
Cobbold wrote in unbending copperplate script: 'Steadily progressing' - Margaret
had come top. 'I also joined the local library', says Margaret, 'and instead of
reading traditional school girl classics I found my travel spirit fom such books
as Kingsley's Westward Ho! which even mentions the Amazon'.
the children visited their maternal grandfather John Henry, who sat them on his
knee to tell travel stories. According to Margaret's brother John 'He
was a tremendous character, even if somewhat feckless'. John Henry had married
his first cousin Ellen White, but only after she had made him wait for seven years.
She had doubts about the marriage on religious grounds, so John Henry decided
to travel the world while he waited. "A little pinch of salt and I'm going
to tell you some stories", he used to say and we were entranced', Margaret
remembers.... 'My mother didn't fully approve as grandfather told us
how he was attacked by footpads or some colourful tales of his adventures in San
Francisco or New Zealand. "Don't stuff the children with all that nonsense"
she would call. He never had a profession - rather he was the black sheep of the
family. But he loved his stories and all of us went on to travel'.
their father's return from the war and a renewed hope for a settled future, the
family moved back to Chesham, this time to a smaller house. While George travelled
daily to London, Margaret was sent to Dr. Challoner's Grammar School in the nearby
market town of Amersham. Her art master, 'Bengy' Buckingham, set weekend tasks
and Margaret still retains a clear memory of how she collected flowers and sketched.
'It was my first, rather childish attempt. I soon moved on to other subjects including
drama and languages'. But the peaceful countryside and crystal clear watercress
beds of those days left a profound mark on her character. Her appreciation of
the beauties of the natural world has solid foundations.
was a good amateur naturalist who knew many wild plants by name. Often he encouraged
her interest and tried to keep a rein on her youthful impulsiveness. At the time,
and for many years after, Margaret's closest family ally was her younger sister
Catherine with whom she shared many secrets. They made friends in the town, planned
travels to France and joined the local amateur drama club. On one occasion Margaret
seriously consideed acting as a career, but just the once, for art and outdoor
sketching wee usually uppermost in her mind. By 1926, when she was seventeen,
she was travelling daily with Catherine and Dora by the Metroland railway through
the new suburbs of London. With one change on the way they could reach Watford
where they had enrolled together at the School of Art, Science and Commerce.
completed a three-years course and has become an established painter in London.
But Margaret and Catherine left the college, preferring to move on to work in
London. The years they had spent at Watford came at a time when the social and
political life in Europe was changing sharply. It was the time of the Depression,
while in Germany Adolf Hitler was gaining support and thoughts of another war
were day-to-day student talk, especially in the extremely political circles in
which Margaret found friends.
While she painted she became absorbed by the
affairs of Europe. Her art school training had led to a teaching post in Liverpool,
but it was short lived when she decided she wanted to travel and see for herself
what Hitler was about. In 1932 Margaret moved to Germany to stay with an exchange-student,
Bruno, who had earlier been with the Browns in Chesham. Her brother John and sister
Dora also travelled to Germany, John staying with Bruno's family some time later.
But Germany was no place for the inquisitve, for anyone with left-wing thoughts
of for those with Jewish friends. Margaret had all these characteristics, and
more, which led to several narrow escapes from Hitler's police. In Berlin one
close student friend thrust his camera into her hand so she could away with his
evidence while he was being arrested and beaten in the street. She ran to the
subway closely followed by plain-clothes police and dodged on and then off a train:
'As the doors closed I rushed off leaving the police behind. I returned to my
friend's house safely and hold his mother he had been arrested. We hid the camera
and waited. After a while he returned. He had been released but was given thirty
days to get out of the country'.
Looking back to those days Margaret Mee
is quietly amused by her audacity. 'But the scenes were dreadful. I was horrified'.
Nevertheless she decided to stay and look for a job. 'They were intensely exciting
and important times. I had all sorts of peculiar offers including one in "Red"
Wedding, a part of Berlin where Hitler's communist opposition gathered. The Nazi
police came and rounded up all the sympathisers - the "Weddingites".
I watched the Reichstag burn in February 1933 soon after Hitler had become Chancellor,
I saw Jewish Boycott Day as people were led away in chains....all frighteningly
close'. She was so absorbed by the enormity of the events that she sketched only
once. It was a classic portrait of a doctor who had offered her a job. She gave
the sketch to him before he, too, decided to leave with his family.
in London in the mid-1930s Margaret's student-bred political career took shape.
She married Reg Bartlett who was already prominent in trade union affairs, and
became a member of the Sign, Glass and Ticket Writers. As a member of the union,
Margaret at twenty-eight became the youngest delegate to address the Trades Union
Congress when, in Norwich in 1937, she proposed a resolution on the first day.
Her theme concerned youth in industry and the raising of the school leaving age.
To a standing ovation she declared: 'This resolution, if put into action with
energy and enthusiasm by the whole trade union movement, could change the future
of the youth of this country'.
Subsequently she was offered a job with Ernest
Bevin in the Labour Party but turned it down, for she was undecided about her
future and the threat of war was drawing closer. In another rousing speech to
the T.U.C. she raised the question of protection of the 'teeming millions in the
industrial towns' against incendiary bombs, shells and gas attacks. At the time
she was so passionately concerned with the plight of the unemployed that her love
for painting was put aside. 'All I did in those years were some large placard-type
cut-outs of the tragic faces of the Hungry 'Thirties which were paraded around
Whitestone Pond in Hampstead.'
Her marriage was never happy and her father's
death gave her the chance to join her mother in France on a trip that was meant
to be a holiday. However, when the time came to return, Margaret announced she
would stay behind. Lizbelle was astonished but could not peruade Margaret to change
her mind.  For a while she worked in a café then as an au
pair until finally, as the army began to march the streets, the local consul
insisted she left. Protesting she wanted to stay, she was helped to a secret channel
crossing fifteen days after war was declared. 'It was a close thing. One official
couldn't understand why I had so many maps and assumed I was a spy. I burst into
tears, and he remarked: "Well perhaps you're not", and let me go'.
was preparing for war and Margaret joined the war effort, first as a machinist
in a factory and then alongside her brother and his fiancée, Nancy, at
the De Havilland aircraft factory in Hatfield, just north of London. Margaret's
skill shone in the drawing office where she worked around the clock, hardly ever
During this time she lived seven miles from the factory
in the village of Codicote. Her mother, and brother John and Nancy when they married,
shared the cottage in typically war-time cramped conditions, and for three years
Margaret cycled to work in all weathers. As John recalls, 'Our cottage was somewhere
near the end of the flying bomb run and when the engines cut out above us we had
to duck for cover'.
Then, at last the war in Europe was over, and on the
tumultuous night of V.E.Day in 1945 Margaret joined the singing crowds in Downing
Street. Like the thousands of people crushing around her she wondered how she
could cope with the future and what she would do next. 'De Havilland offered me
a permanent job in the drawing office but I turned it down. I couldn't face it.
I decided to work in a studio and at evening classes'.
Her first thoughts
were to find the breadth of her talent and learn new techniques, and to this end
she attended night and weekend classes at St. Martin's School of Art in central
London. It was here that she met Greville Mee, a commercial artist who had arrived
in London from Leicester in the 1930s. Greville, like countless other
artists at the time, found the streets of the capital anything but paved with
gold and survived by moving from one studio to another. 
opened another horizon for Margaret. One evening the resident model failed to
arrive and the tutor turned to Margaret asking her to pose. 'I told him that my
stockings were muddy from cycling in the rain but he said "Don't worry, be
natural, just sit there..., and I did. That was it!...'.
St Martin's gave
her the chance to assemble a portfolio which she took to the Camberwell School
of Art where she was immediately accepted as a full-time student. Her work was
seen by Victor Pasmore, then one of Britain's leading painters, who recommended
Margaret should receive a grant for her studies. She started at Camberwell in
'Victor Pasmore was a wonderful teacher. He would say "Look at
the shapes - fit the shapes between the spaces..." Then he'd go and you wouldn't
see him again that day. And of course we found the spaces are just as important
as the shapes. He was a hard teacher. Some of the girls would be in tears from
his criticisms'. It was Pasmore's style and attention that has given so much to
Margaret's own highly personal approach to the composition of her Amazon flower
paintings. Victor Pasmore was a co-founder, with William Coldstream and Claude
Rogers, of the Euston Road Group. Before the war they had opened a teaching studio
in Fitzroy Street, and were united in their revolt against abstractism. Augustus
John, John Nash and Vanessa Bell were also associated with the group. Victor Pasmore
frequently used large masses of subdued colour, perhaps reflecting the grimy atmosphere
of that part of London. Later the studio became the Euston Road School with a
prospectus stating: 'In teaching, particular emphasis will be laid on training
in observation since this is the faculty more open to training'. It is not a coincidence
that the hallmarks of Margaret's flower paintings are her observation and detail.
At Camberwell she excelled at figure drawing: 'Handling proportions and
depth are essential for good figure work. It is marvellous training'. Margaret
recalls the discipline of the three years at the School from which she received
her diploma. Greville had attended Camberwell evening and Saturday morning classes
whilst continuing to build his career in the commercial art field.
to travel again came in 1952  when Margaret heard that Catherine was
seriously unwell in Brazil.  Catherine had married and spent much of
the war near the Roman spa city of Bath. Later she left Britain with her husband
to live in São Paulo, which at that time was a small city. Margaret and
the family knew of Catherine's new life as Lizbelle once made a nine month visit
to Brazil and returned brimful of excitement and stories. Thus, when Margaret
received an air ticket to take her out to help her sister she left Greville to
pack up their flat in Blackheath near Greenwich. 9} 'It was a wonderful
part of London', Greville remembers nostaligically, 'but I followed a couple of
months later by sea with the luggage. We thought we would stay for three or four
years', he jokes, 'but it has grown into a lifetime. Though absolutely fascinating'.
Once in Brazil, Margaret began teaching art at St. Paul's, the British
School in São Paulo, and Greville was soon established as a busy commercial
artist.  He can well claim to have introduced the airbrush technique
to Brazil. 'It was in its infancy then, and I had to improvise the equipment using
pressured gases. In those days, São Paulo was a growing commercial centre
and I soon had a business'.
Margaret and Greville settled into the life
of São Paulo and made many good friends. At weekends their home was a magnet
for anyone who appreciated art and good food - Greville is an imaginative cook.
He also designed and built sailing boats which he used on the enormous artifical
lakes near the city. Margaret was soon entranced by the luxuriant flowers and
beautiful birds surrounding their home. But the city was expanding and rapidly
becoming South America's fastest growing urban area. Concrete quickly spread upwards
and outwards until the Mee's tiny house was totally absorbed.
from the crowds and enjoy a cooler climate, Margaret and Greville hiked frequently
to hills and forests outside the city and enjoyed the parks and open spaces. It
was when they were walking once through rough unkempt land beside an old tramway
line that Margaret spotted a castor oil plant with, to her eye, curious fruits
and leaves. 'It had such wonderful shapes - I sketched it immediately'. As Greville
says, 'From that time on Margaret put aside all other ideas and began sketching
and painting flowers'.
Brazil's southern coastal mountains, or Serra do
Mar, became their favourite area for painting excursions and collecting plants
to sketch, and from these early days Margaret began to build her collection and
reputation as a flower painter. She painted seriously in every spare moment, choosing
as a medium gouache, an opaque watercolour technique which she had first used
at Camberwell. She also kept minutely detailed notes as she had been taught at
Camberwell. Her paper was carefully chose for quality - called Fabriano Raffaello,
 it is an excellent surface for gouache. And; she began to show her
work, always with the idea of painting more flowers from further afield.
returned to Britain and died soon afterwards; this was the moment for Margaret
to decide on her future, and as Greville was a successful commercial artist in
Brazil they decided to stay there. For Margaret, too, there was a positive new
interest in her work from a Dutch friend, Rita, one of the St. Paul's teachers.
Rita enjoyed long hikes, often accompanying the Mees as they explored the densely
forested mountain slope leading down to the Atlantic. This rich 'Atlantic Forest'
is filled with flowers, giant ferns and marvellous humming-birds. More than once
they hiked to the sea and followed the broad sandy coastline for miles. Each new
excursion meant more plants and a growing collection of paintings. It did not
take much persuasion for Rita to agree to join Margaret for her first assault
on the Amazon.
In almost five centuries since its discovery the Amazon,
or Amazonia, the region embraced by the river, has attracted dozens of explorers,
many of them naturalists. One reason being that of all places in the world Amazonia
is unrivalled for its immense diversity of animals and plants and far from popular
myth it is a region of many faces. It can be as dry as the most inhospitable desert
in one part, or flooded, and often permanently swampy, in others. Sometimes the
interior of a forest impresses with a sepulchral sombreness as trees rise a hundred
and fifty feet or more. Elsewhere, the ground is simply covered with low thorny
In most places away from civilisation a modern traveller faces much
the same problems as anyone in the past. Richard Spruce was a Yorkshireman who,
in the middle of the last century, spent seventeen years along the Amazon. His
book Notes of a Botanist on the Amazon and Andes is a classic. One experience
sums up the crude, often rough life of the settlers there. He was visiting a small
village of palm-thatched huts in the tropical forest: 'You will credit me when
I say to the sight Esmeralda is a paradise - in reality it is an Inferno, scarcely
habitable by man'.
Spruce was one of the most reliable of the nineteenth
century botanists who, treading new ground, produced remarkable accounts of their
journeys. Their stories were often spaced with descriptions of newly discovered
species, though surprisingly few of their illustrations were accurate and many
were simply exaggerated - their readers expected the unusual. Even fewer of the
illustrations were coloured. Von Martius, a Bavarian who explored in the upper
Amazon and Brazil in 1817, employed artists in Germany, one of whom, Joseph Pohl,
produced some of the best nineteenth century work, but Pohl used dried specimens
and Von Martius' descriptions.
None of this early work equals the personal
style of accuracy and depth which Margaret was achieving by 1956. She worked only
from living plants, usually sketched in the forest. Even before she attempted
painting the flora of the Amazon her work was skilful, exquisitely composed and
perfectly colour matched. The question for her was where to start. Which of the
many thousands of 'Esmeraldas' should she choose as a base? And every map she
saw gave the rivers different names. It was a hugely confusing new world.
Amazon is without doubt the greatest river on earth. Unravelled, its tributaries
would twice circle the equator. Put its source in Moscow, and the mouth would
be south of the Sahara. Even more startling is the fact that Amazonia equals the
size of the continental United States. Faced with such dimensions and the constraints
of teachers' salaries, Margaret and Rita could think of looking at merely a fraction.
But Margaret Mee was well prepared for her first expedition by a long background
of challenges. Then forty-seven, she packed her artist's kit into a canvas rucksack
and padded it with spare clothes. She also took a revolver.
Outside it was
drizzling, low cloud surrounded the city. A typical misty day enveloped São
Paulo. Greville had decided it was not his kind of trip, and in any case he couldn't
leave his work. He drove Margaret and Rita to the airport and waved a reluctant
goodbye. Margaret, without realising it at the time, was setting out on a journey
which would launch her into history and the world of art.