CHARLOTTE WHEELER CUFFE / Botanist & Botanical Illustrator


Botanist and botanical illustrator

Surrey / Burma / Kilkenny

1867 – 1967

The botanical art collection at the National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin is home to the work of a number of women botanical illustrators, among them the remarkable Lady Charlotte Wheeler Cuffe. During a long residence in Burma from 1897–1922, Cuffe became a celebrated plant hunter, botanist and botanical illustrator, and founded the garden that is now the National Kandawgyi Botanical Gardens at Pyin U Lwin, Burma.

Cuffe was born in Surrey but married an Anglo-Irish civil engineer, Sir Otway Wheeler-Cuffe of Kilkenny. He was employed in imperial service and shortly after their marriage in 1897, the pair moved to Burma, where they would remain for 24 years.

Cuffe was a talented artist who produced hundreds of botanical illustrations during her residence in Burma, mainly of orchids and rhododendrons. These were made from life, on the spot, and showed the entire plant in the context of its habitat. In this respect her botanical illustrations differ from those produced purely for the purpose of scientific study, that emphasise stamens and pistils.

But Cuffe was not just an observer. By accompanying Otway on official road inspection tours, she had access to remote parts of the country rarely visited by other Europeans. It was during one of their tours of the country that Cuffe discovered two new species of rhododendron on Mount Victoria (Nat Ma Taung) – the white-flowered Rhododendron cuffeanum and the yellow Rhododendron burmanicum – and the anemone ‘Shadow’s blue buttercup’, so called from her childhood pet name.

In the early twentieth century, British ‘orchid-hunters’ travelled to the tropics to profit from interest in this exotic, varied species with its showy floral displays. This fashion drew more attention to Cuffe’s botanical illustrations and landscape paintings. Two of her landscapes were reproduced in colour in Scott O’Connor’s The Silken East: a Record of Life and Travel in Burma (1904) and some of her botanical illustrations were sold to private collectors. Cuffe indulged in her own passion for orchids through her art, and by developing a 150-acre botanic garden in Burma from 1916. A century later, that garden still exists as the Burmese national botanic gardens.

Cuffe wrote weekly letters detailing Burmese life to her mother and to her husband’s cousin in Kilkenny, Baroness Pauline Prochazka. She also corresponded with the keeper of the National Botanic Gardens, Sir Frederick Moore, sending him live specimens. The letters are in the archive of the National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin, along with her botanical illustrations, which she donated in 1927.

On Otway’s retirement in 1921, he and Cuffe left Burma for his family seat at Lyrath, Co. Kilkenny. Cuffe kept a noted garden on the Lyrath estate, which is still maintained. Cuffe’s enduring links to private and public gardens in Ireland and in Burma are a fitting memorial to her life of adventure and learning.

Thanks to herstorian Dr. Angela Byrne for this herstory.

Image: Charlotte Wheeler Cuffe and husband (The Irish Times, 26.11.2015).