Pear on Canvas: Natural Histories of Women in Botany

Painting of a Pear, a Simbirsk-Prince cross variety (c.1930)

Painting of a Pear, Faith Fyles, Canadian Science and Technology Museum Corporation, c.1930 

By Beth A. Robertson


This painting, featuring a pear crossed between Prince and Simbirsk varieties, was by botanist Faith Fyles B.A. (1875-1961). Completed in September of 1930, the painting was intended to act as a resource for the Horticultural Research Program of the Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa, ON, Canada. Paintings like these were to provide an illustration of true colour and technical data of individual specimens. This was especially important in terms of experimenting with and documenting different varieties of fruit, vegetation and seeds. Much as Ann Vileisis tells us, creations such as this pear reflect how "natural" specimens were simultaneosly "a product of technology" as well as science, reflecting the "historical interplay between humans and the environment."[1]

This painting was one of many Faith Fyles created over her long career. Fyles was a professional botanist in early twentieth-century Canada. She had been educated at McGill, where she studied under Professor Carrie Derick—another exceptional woman botanist who no doubt inspired Fyles to pursue a career in the field. In 1910, Fyles obtained employment as an assistant seed analyst with the federal Department of Agriculture, a job characterized as “women’s work” at the time.[2] She transferred to the Central Experimental Farm the next year in 1911 to become an Assistant Botanist in charge of the Botanical Gardens and the Herbarium. Fyles was more than qualified for the post, but considering that many other, equally-educated women were regularly denied positions of similar standing, her appointment was nothing short of extraordinary. Fyles proved to be an invaluable hire. She successfully performed her duties as a botanist, while conducting useful field work, wrote Principal Poisonous Plants of Canada for the Department in 1920, and assisted her colleagues through her gifts as an artist. Her paintings of various plant specimens have become a hallmark of the Canadian Agricultural and Food Museum collection in Ottawa. Fyles continued her scientific research at the Farm until she retired in 1931.[3]

[1] Ann Vileisis, "Are Tomatoes Natural?" The Illusory Boundary: Environment and Technology in History, eds. Martin Reuss and Stephen H. Cutcliffe (Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2010), 211-212.

[2] Amber Loydlangston, “Women  in Botany and the Canadian Federal Department of Agriculture,” Scientia Canadiensis 29, 2 (2006): 113, 122-129.

[3] More on Faith Fyles and her contributions can also be found on the Innovation Canada 150 website of the Canadian Science and Technology Museum.