© 1987
   The Face Behind The Flowers  
Her life embraced art, politics, the threatened environment and a quest for a very elusive Amazon flower. Most of all all Margaret was an brilliant story-teller .
Uncovering the Secret Life of Margaret Mee
Tony Morrison

Chapter 1 Memories of the Knights Templar

Margaret 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.

Her 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


Continuing 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 heat.

"Hello" 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..

Looking 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 London journalist.

Thinking 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.

Thursday 12th March 1987 — 5.15 pm and daylight was fading

We 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.

For 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.

We 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.

A 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.

We 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?"

She 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.

We 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.

Did 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.

"Why 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".

He 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"

My 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.

"Do 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?"

Margaret 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 help her"

I 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".

History 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.

"I 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' ".

The 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 life".

"Ellen 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".

"He 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.

The 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.

We 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.

"You 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.

"Look, 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"

I 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.

He 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"

We 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'.

"I'm 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.

Chapter Two......... 'A Short Walk in Mayfair'

This account is based on notes, recordings and diaries. If any inaccuracies are noticed please send an e-mail. The editor will be pleased to insert corrections. Everyone mentioned in the text has received my special thanks and I take this opportunity to say 'thank you' again. TM. All the material is available without charge for scholars worldwide and other non-commericial use. A credit would be appreciated. For commercial use please request permission from the editor.

The text and most of the images are © Copyright
For any commercial use please contact