Recently I received a message via Facebook from Beth Heller, a colleague in Colorado, regarding the conservation of a vulnerable watercolor. The work in question was unusual enough that Beth began researching the artist and conservation literature to see if she could turn up any information for the fragile work. She quickly hit on the finding aid for our Adelia Gates collection and wrote to me that she had “an Adelia Gates watercolor in my studio right now . . . Have you seen any?” The name and the fragile brown paper she described sounded familiar. Several years ago, I had examined a Gates watercolor in our collection, but chose not to treat it due to the extreme sensitivity of the unusual paper Gates worked on.
My colleague’s inquiry piqued my interest. Our Adelia Gates Finding Aid is sparse, but intriguing and mysterious. Further research in the Smithsonian Institution’s Collections Search Center next pointed me to The chronicles of the Sid: or, The life and travels of Adelia Gates, by Adela E. Orpen, available in our Botany library. With that title, I became even more curious! The book was written in the first person by Adela Orpen, Gates’ ward in rural Kansas during the Civil War, who went on to become “a popular authoress” and whose writing offers amazing insight into 19th century thinking and conventions around class, race, and gender. Not much is known about how the book came into the collection except for an ownership inscription, which we have connected to the wife of the mathematician and scientist Louis Agricola Bauer, living at The Ontario apartments in Washington, D.C.
Happily, someone inserted an annotated table of contents to botanically-related passages, making my reading more focused and saving me from having to read too much (forgive the pun) flowery prose about the lives of immigrant, freedmen pioneers, and working women. Young Adelia Gates is described as brilliant, motivated to go to college, and constantly studying between her farm work, parenting, and schoolteacher duties. She began to paint when she was a young woman, but had few resources: “She had no colours, she had no brushes . . . She made paints for herself out of the juices of the flowers and plants themselves.” To earn money for college, Gates went back East to work in the textile mills at Lowell, MA.
It wasn’t until 50 that Gates finally began serious studies in botanical painting in Switzerland. Her studies at Madame (Emilie) Vouga’s school in Geneva promoted the use of dark paper and opaque pigment, as opposed to traditional watercolors: “The new style evaded this difficulty of white upon white by simply doing away with the white paper and using coloured paper instead…White flowers now stand lustrous upon dark brown paper, and they are not in the least heavy.” In describing her later skill Orpen wrote “When the Sid [Gates’ nickname] begins to paint a flower, the first thing she does is to dip her brush into the colour she intends to use; there is no preliminary going over the outline with a pencil…there are none of those half-hidden black lines that always irritate the spectator who looks at flower pictures that have been carefully sketched in.”
Gates also explored boundaries as a solo woman traveler. Gates sought out rare flora in the Sahara and on the lava fields of Iceland. On the subject of her search for botanical subjects in Colorado, Orpen describes how Gates “was one day beguiled far up into the mountains in search of some tempting flowers that she had heard were then in blossom…so taking off her shoes and stockings, she determined to use all the prehensile members provided by Nature… [A frightful cliff climb ending in a tumble, injuries, and the loss of shoes ensue]…There was but one ray of comfort in this disastrous climax, the Rubus deliciosus was within reach.” Which turned out to be, coincidentally, a flower featured in the painting my colleague was treating, and a serendipitous bookend to my own investigation of Adelia Gates.