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Helena (Nellie) Scott (1832–1910)

by Linda Pascal

Helena Scott, n.d.

Helena Scott, n.d.

Australian Museum

Helena “Nellie” Scott (Helena Forde from 1864) (1832-1910), naturalist, artist, botanical collector, lepidopterist, designer and lithographer was born in Harrington St, the Rocks area of Sydney, New South Wales on 11 April 1832. Helena was the younger of the two Scott sisters by two years, daughters of Alexander Walker Scott and Harriet Calcott. Harriett had two other daughters, Mary Ann and Frances, from two previous relationships, who became part of the Scott family. Alexander Scott was an entomologist, entrepreneur, state parliamentarian and Land Titles Commissioner. He educated Harriet (the older Scott sister named after her mother) and Helena at home in the Rocks and on Ash Island in the Hunter River, Newcastle region, teaching them drawing, specimen collecting and natural history. As children, Helena and Harriet took informal art lessons from Conrad Martens. As adults, they learned lithography from Samuel Thomas Gill.

In some ways, the Scott sisters’ family life was unconventional. Their parents did not marry until 1846 (14 years after Helena’s birth) when the family moved to Ash Island. Members of their extended family were notable leaders and reformers in colonial society, their father allowed them to put their names to their illustrations, they met and corresponded with artists, explorers, scientists and naturalists, some of whom visited the family on Ash Island. The sisters freely roamed Ash Island and other locations in search of specimens, butterflies and moths and had a close association with the Australian Museum as Alexander Scott was chairman of the Board of Trustees.[1] On the other hand, because they were women the sisters were denied a formal education, full membership of scientific societies and sometimes proper payment for their work. 

Natural history illustration and specimen collecting were acceptable as feminine pursuits. Both sisters gradually earned an income from illustrations, especially after their father became bankrupt and they moved back to Sydney from Ash Island in 1866. One of Helena’s early drawings was of a Christmas bush for George Bennett’s 1860 memoir, Gatherings of a Naturalist in Australasia.[2] The sisters became known as the first and best female professional illustrators in NSW. Helena particularly made a career from commissioned drawings and lithography. Many artworks, manuscripts, correspondence and specimens from the Scott sisters are preserved in the collections of Australian national and state museums, galleries and libraries. 

Harriet and Helena’s most well-known work was the Australian Lepidoptera and their Transformations Drawn from the Life by Harriet and Helena Scott; with Descriptions, General and Systematics, by AW Scott MA. Lepidoptera are butterflies and moths, described in the book and categorised by Alexander Scott, illustrated by Helena and Harriett. Australian Lepidoptera was published in two volumes: volume I by John van Voorst in London, 1864 and volume II in five parts between 1890-1898 by the Australian Museum. Publication of the second volume was instigated by Helena, assisted by the museum’s entomologist Arthur Sidney Olliff. The illustrations for both volumes were highly regarded then and now for their scientific accuracy and artistic value. The Lepidoptera is still used as a scientific, historical and artistic reference work.[3]

In the early 1800s, some natural history artists began to picture insects with their host plants. The Scott sisters further developed that style by drawing host plants, scenery and anatomical details. They sometimes used sketches of landscapes and buildings as background scenery copied from the works of other colonial artists. Commonly, the sisters pictured the insects in their natural state, flying, feeding from or clinging to host plants. They often included on the same plate drawings of the life stages of the adult insect, the larva (caterpillar) and pupa (chrysalis). The colouring is deep and bright, true to the subject’s colours and to the Australian bush, capturing the blue-green of eucalyptus leaves. The sisters used very fine brushes and microscopes to draw the detail of the antennae, labial palpi and legs at the base of the plates. In recognition of their work on the first volume Harriet and Helena were elected honorary members of the Entomological Society of NSW in 1864.[4]

At 32 years of age in 1864 Helena married 35 year old Edward Forde, chief draftsman, NSW Department of Harbour and River Navigation.[5] The couple moved to Sydney then travelled on a surveying expedition along the Darling River between Wentworth and Bourke, NSW. Helena collected plants, planning to publish her own study of the flora of the Darling River. She made a sketchbook of the camps and plants along the Darling and relics from Bourke’s doomed journey.[6] Helena’s plant specimens from the Darling River expedition were passed onto a friend, Rev William Woolls, to assist with his book on Australian flora.[7] Woolls subsequently passed the specimens to Baron Ferdinand von Mueller.[8] Harriet and Helena sent plant specimens to von Mueller for over 40 years as members of his “collecting ladies” network.[9]

During the Darling River journey in 1866 Helena and Edward both contracted typhoid fever resulting in Edward’s death in June at Medindee, making Helena a widow after only two years of marriage. Her father borrowed money from Gerard Kreftt, then director of the Australian Museum, to bring Helena home.[10] 1866 was a sad year for the Scott family; the sisters’ mother Hariett Calcott died in January, their father went bankrupt and had to move the family from Ash Island to Sydney in May. Helena joined her father, sister Harriett and step-sister Mary Ann later that year after Edward’s death. The family first lived in Paddington then settled in “Ferndale”, New South Head Rd, Double Bay and never revisited Ash Island.[11] The Scott sisters increased their efforts to earn an income for themselves and the family through their natural history illustrations.

Both sisters illustrated and collected specimens for James Cox’, A Monograph of Australian Land Shells (1868), snakes for Gerard Krefft’s, The Snakes of Australia: An Illustrated and Descriptive Catalogue of All the Known Species (1869) and The Mammals of Australia (1871) commissioned by the Council of Education for primary school children.[12] The sisters’ artwork was so well regarded, first Helena in 1878 then Harriet in 1879, were commissioned by Turner and Henderson to design and draw wildflowers for Australia’s first wildflower Christmas cards, published in 1879 and 1880. Helena’s correspondence with “scientific friends” shows she was confident in her scientific knowledge and mixing with male scientists. She identified and handled snake, spider and snail specimens and gladly camped out with Edward on the Darling River, collecting plant specimens and sketching. Joseph James Fletcher described her as “…a very gifted woman, keenly interested in science”.[13]

Helena sought and received more solo commissions than Harriet. She drew decorative pen and ink borders of Australian flowers, animals and landscapes for photographs and albums which were commissioned by photo studios. In 1875 Helena decorated a commemorative album of photographs for touring actress Adelaide Ristori and illustrated the address presented to the Hon Jacob Levi Montefiore MLC in 1877 by the Chamber of Commerce, exhibited as an artwork at the Sydney Gallery of Art in July 1877.[14] She illustrated fossil fruits for an 1876 journal article by Archibald Liversidge, designed floral-wreathed silver medals for jewellers Hardy Brothers for the awards presented at the Yass Agricultural Show (1873 and 1875), drew a flannel flower for Lady Hay in 1877 and illustrated orchids for Sir William Macarthur in 1878.[15] In 1879 Helena advertised in the Sydney Morning Herald that she was available to teach art, flower painting, etching and pencil drawing.[16] In 1881 she designed the botanical silverwork border for blotting pads presented to princes Edward and George on their visit to Sydney (commissioned and presented by the Hon Thomas Holt MLC). That year she also won a monetary prize in a John Sands competition to design Christmas cards for 1882.[17]

Helena asked von Mueller in 1881 to pay for her specimen collection he had received from Woolls but Mueller refused, kept the collection for the gardens and offered instead to pay for any botanical drawings she would submit to him.[18] Mueller did pay a few men to collect specimens but the “collecting ladies” like Helena and Harriet were mainly unpaid, rewarded instead with new discoveries being named after them or small gifts. On rare occasions women may have been paid a small amount for special batches of specimens.[19] Helena may have thought that her Darling River collection was a special case as she had not collected the specimens specifically for Mueller and had not herself given them to him. Von Mueller later named a Darling River grass after Helena, Poa fordeana. In 1882 Wedgewood used Helena’s 1879 Christmas card designs for a range of Australian flora dinnerware. It is not known if Helena was paid for reuse of her designs as the flowers were rearranged and differently coloured and there was no attribution to her.[20]

Harriet married an old friend, Dr Cosby Morgan, in 1882 and moved to Pambula on the south coast of NSW. Alexander Scott died of liver failure in 1883. Helena decided to sell the family archive of butterfly and moth specimens, paintings, notebooks and manuscripts to Edward Pierson Ramsay, then curator and director of the Australian Museum.[21] She had to wind up her father’s affairs including inheriting a long court case of more than 25 years over the failed attempt to establish the Blandford Proprietary School in the Newcastle area, with the shareholder funds eventually being directed to the establishment of The Armidale School.[22] Helena lived at Ferndale until the death of her sister Mary Ann then moved between various lodgings, first at Rose Bay then to Harris Park and Granville.

During the 1890s Helena edited and published volume II of the Lepidoptera with Olliff. Sternly worded letters exchanged between Helena and Ramsay about the extent of Ramsay’s contribution to Alexander Scott’s entomological work, show Helena was assertive and protective of her father’s scientific legacy. [23] She spent her last years corresponding with scientist friends, visiting Harriet in Pambula, specimen collecting and looking for work as an illustrator or at the Australian Museum, offering to rearrange her father’s notes and collections. In a 1904 letter to her cousin, George Scott, Helena wrote about her application to the museum, “I must try and earn a little money somehow to keep the wolf from the door and I hope I shall get it – as it is the only work I am fit for.”[24] In the same letter she reported on the “pilgrimage” to Ash Island made by two scientific friends, Joseph Henry Maiden and Joseph James Fletcher, to see if any of the original native shrubs and trees were still growing there.[25] They came back nearly heartbroken finding “everything beautiful chased away”.[26] Harriet and her husband moved nearby to Helena in Harris Park in 1905 then Harriet died in 1907.

Helena died at 78 peacefully in her sleep in her lodgings at Harris Park on 24 November 1910.[27] Fletcher wrote in her obituary, “Her many friends recognised in her a warm-hearted, cultured woman of very considerable intellectual gifts… Her keen interest in science, as well as in human affairs, was maintained up to the last”.[28]

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Museum, “Scott sisters”, website,
  • Finney, Vanessa. Transformations: Harriet and Helena Scott, Colonial Sydney's Finest Natural History Painters, foreword by Kim McKay AO (Director and CEO, Australian Museum), design, Sarah Ogders Sydney, NSW, NewSouth Publishing, 2018.
  • Ord, Marion, Harriet and Helena Scott. Illustrated edition: Historical Drawings of Native Flowers / Harriet and Helena Scott; Introduced and Selected by Marion Ord. Roseville, NSW, Craftsman House, 1988.
  • Ord, Marion, Helena Scott and Australian Museum. Historical Drawings of Moths and Butterflies: From the Collections of the Australian Museum. Roseville, NSW, Australia, Craftsman House, 1988.
  • Scott, Alexander Walker, Harriet Scott and Helena Scott. Australian Lepidoptera and their Transformations, Drawn from the Life by Harriet and Helena Scott, with Descriptions, General and Systematics, by AW Scott, vol I, John van Voorst, London, 1864.
  • Scott, Alexander Walker, Harriet Morgan and Helena Forde, edited and revised by Helena Forde and Arthur Sidney Olliff. Australian Lepidoptera and their Transformations by the Late Alexander Walker Scott with Illustrations Drawn from the Life by Harriet Morgan and Helena Forde, vol II, Australian Museum, 1890-98.
  • von Loopin Stab, Chit Chat and Tony Whittaker. Stories of Our Town, “The Scott Sisters of Ash Island”, documentary, 22 July 2020, Carnivore Films.


Thank you to the librarians, archivists and curators for advice and access to collections in the State Library of NSW, Australian Museum, National Gallery of Australia, Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne, National Library of Australia, Noel Butlin Archives, ANU and Queensland Museum Library.

This person appears as a part of the Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6. [View Article]

Citation details

Linda Pascal, 'Scott, Helena (Nellie) (1832–1910)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 22 April 2024.

© Copyright People Australia, 2012