© 1987

Who was Margaret Mee?

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 .
and the full text of Before the Amazon from the classic book
In Search of flowers of the Amazon Forests -1988

Margaret Mee was a British botanical artist who lived almost half of her life in Brasil. She is best remembered for her paintings of flowers she saw in Brasilian forests and her fifteen journeys into the depths of Amazonia.By a twist of fate she died in a car / automobile accident in England in 1988 only six months after her 79th birthday. Many of her paintings survive in personal collections and in larger numbers with two major institutions. A collection of sixty works, accompanied by her field diaries and sketchbooks is in the care of the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, in England. A collection of her earlier work with many examples of plants from the coastal forests and arid northeast of Brasil is held by the Institituto de Botânica de São Paulo, Brasil

Dr.Simon Mayo is a botanist who knew Margaret Mee well and in a short Biographical Tribute to her in a book published by The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in 2004 he said - 'In the introduction to her diaries (Margaret Mee: In Search of Flowers of the Amazon Forests, Nonesuch Expeditions 1988) Tony Morrison has given us the best published account of her life, from her birth in 1909..........The biographical chapter Before the Amazon was written in Rio de Janeiro in early 1988 using tape recordings made with Margaret. Excerpts from the recordings are presented here.


Margaret Mee died a few days after the book was published so the account of her life is incomplete. The book has not been reprinted in English since 1989. Another work containing her paintings and extracts from her diaries was published in 2004 but it has only a few biographical details.

Back in the 1980s the internet and World Wide Web were mere concepts.The spread of these ways to communicate are now changing the idea of 'publishing' so the full introduction to the classic book of her diaries edited during daily visits to her home in Rio de Janeiro .....

In Search of Flowers of the Amazon Forests ISBN 1 869901 08 8 with many illustrations will be available as an e-book file on this site

Here you will find the full text of a chapter of her early life as published in November 1988 before her death. The numbers refer to notes for corrections or answers to questions raised since the first publication.

Before the Amazon...© Tony Morrison

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 [1] ..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.

Rural 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. [2]

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 to Brighton.

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'.

During holidays 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.[3]... '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'.

With 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.

Margaret's father 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.

Dora 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.

Back 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. [4] 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'.

Britain 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 seeing daylight.

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.[5] 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. [6]

St. Martin's 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 1947.

'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.

The chance to travel again came in 1952 [7] when Margaret heard that Catherine was seriously unwell in Brazil. [8] 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. [10] 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.

To escape 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, [11] 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.

Catherine 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 scrub.

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.

The 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.


1 Wilfrid Blunt was the brother of Anthony Blunt a master spy for the Soviet Union [Soviet Russia] while at the same time holding the prestigious position in London as Surveyor of the Queen's Pictures

2 Research following Margaret Mee's death has so far not revealed any connection with the wealthy main line of the Churchman family

3 To take something with 'A little pinch of salt' has the meaning of not accepting it as true. In the case of Margaret's maternal grandfather John Henry the stories he told were probably exciting semi-fantasy. The reference Margaret made gives an insight to her own colourful story telling

4 Margaret had decided to leave Reg Bartlett and to make it simpler she stayed in France. The circumstances of the Second World War helped rather than hindered and a divorce was granted in 1943

5 Greville Mee married in Leicester.

6 Greville and his wife separated sometime in 1946

7 This is the date Margaret remembered as 'Before the Amazon' was being prepared. Later she explained how she left England in November 1951.

8 The true story of Margaret's departure for Brasil is usually clouded by the idea she fostered of going to care for her sister Catherine who she said was seriously unwell. But in June 1950 Margaret was in Paris, France to meet Catherine who was was apparently in good spirits and clearly able to travel. Catherine later became unwell and died in 1956 - six years later

9 In a recorded interview Margaret said Greville left London 'a month or two' after her. Margaret later changed the story.

10 In a recorded interview Margaret said she had re-married before leaving London. This is incorrect. It seems she left London as Margaret Bartlett and changed her name to Margaret Mee on arrival in Brasil.

11 Fabriano Rafaello is a mis-spelling of Fabriano Rafaelo. Occasionally Margaret Mee used Schoellershammer paper or others


Margaret and Greville married in London in 1980

Margaret died in England in the evening of November 30th 1988

Greville re-married in 1994 to Elizabeth Embacher. his third wife

Greville died of leukemia in London, England on 4th July 2007 - he is survived by Elizabeth [ed 2009]

Greville passed the copyright of Margaret's work in the book In Search of Flowers of the Amazon Forests to the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew in 1999. He maintained an active interest in the scholarship programme started in 1988 under auspices of The Margaret Mee Amazon Trust.

Before the Amazon pages 18 -27 © Tony Morrison from Margaret Mee In Search of the Amazon Forests
First published in Margaret Mee, In Search of Amazon Flowers, Nonesuch Expeditions, England. 1988
ISBN 1 868901 08 8

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