Throughout her life, Agnes drew inspiration from many places for her illustrations of flowers and plants. One of the most significant was along the Humber River in York Township, in what is now known as Toronto. Heritage York honours Agnes and celebrates her legacy in the Humber River area with the annual Aggie’s Wildflowers Walk. Madeleine McDowell, in partnership with the Toronto Field Naturalists and Heritage York, has hosted the walking tour for almost twenty years.
Agnes was born in 1833 to Susanna Moodie (née Strickland), an author and illustrator, and John Wedderburn Dunbar Moodie, an army officer, public servant, and writer, near Cobourg in Upper Canada. Agnes had an early introduction to both the settler life and the literary world of the British colony through her mother and her aunt, Catharine Parr Traill (née Strickland), an author and naturalist.
Victorian England, named for the rule of Queen Victoria from 1837 to 1901, was characterized by a turn from rationalism to romanticism, which included the romanticization of nature. The transition from the Georgian to the Victorian Era saw a dramatic shift in the social, economic, and cultural life of England and the British Empire.
While the country was going through rapid industrialization, society developed a passion for botany and it became a popular interest and pastime for the middle class. Households commonly owned albums of pressed flowers and decorated their homes with floral designs on fabric and wallpapers. These Victorian trends made their way to Canada as the English middle class emigrated to the British colony.
It is within this context that the British Empire established the Indian Department in 1763 to facilitate the purchase of Indigenous lands. The government signed treaties with Indigenous peoples to lay claim to their ancestral lands.
The formation of these treaties was ambiguous and troublesome - often being deliberately misleading, containing false and incomplete information, or failing to uphold payments. Indigenous notions of land ‘ownership’ consist of sharing and taking care of the land, which is vastly different from Europeans. These differences often led to misunderstandings about treaties, which settlers took advantage of.
After arriving in Canada, the family bought a cleared farm near Cobourg, where Agnes was born in 1833. Financial issues led them to sell the farm in 1834 and the family moved to Belleville in 1840 after John was appointed as sheriff of the district. It was in Belleville that Susanna wrote of her life and hardships in the isolated landscapes of Ontario, which would later be published in 1852 in Roughing it in the Bush, her most famous literary creation.
“The badness of roads in this country, the slowness of conveyance, want of proper artificers, etc. etc. are seldom taken into consideration by writers who write only to sell a book. When they talk of the advantages and comforts of a setters life they pass over the intervening and necessary hardships and privations and talk of the future as if the present.”
- Catharine Parr Traill, January 7th, 1834.
Catharine maintained a personal herbarium, a collection of pressed and dried plants, which she studied and kept notes on. She was passionate about sharing this knowledge with others. Despite this, Catharine struggled to find markets locally, in England, and in the United States to publish her botanical works.
The story of how Canadian Wild Flowers came to be is a testament to the hard work and determination of Agnes and Catharine. Catharine was left widowed with seven children in 1859. In order to support her family, she gathered the botanical notes she had been keeping for years and organized them into a book manuscript. However, the population of Toronto at the time was small and local publishers found her book to be too long and too niche to be successful, especially since there were no illustrations.
Catharine reached out to her niece, Agnes, who began illustrating some specimens for the manuscript in 1863. In 1865, Agnes found herself in a similar situation to her aunt; her husband had passed away and she was left with limited resources and six children to take care of. Needing to support her family, Agnes dedicated herself to illustrating and publishing Canadian Wild Flowers, which featured her aunt’s text. Originally published in 1868, it would become Canada’s first coffee table book and the first book on Canadian flora.
Publishing the book was a challenge, as Catharine was unable to find a publisher in Toronto who would take on her manuscript. Now with Agnes’ illustrations, the two women took their work to John Lovell, a publisher in Montreal. He agreed to publish their book on the conditions that they find 500 subscribers to ensure buyers, and that the illustrations be printed out-of-house, since his publishing company was unable to print in colour. Agnes and Catharine were determined to find subscribers, and they secured 500 by 1868.
Canadian Wild Flowers was finally published in 1868 and the book proved to be so popular that two subsequent editions were published in 1869, with another special edition made in 1895. The first three runs found a total of 1500 subscribers. The first edition sold for 5$, the second edition for 6$, and the third for 6.50$, which was a considerable amount of money at the time. The lithography stones that were used for the illustrations in the first edition were reused to produce the prints for the following editions, and Agnes painted all of these by hand with the assistance of a few of her children as well.
In 1870, Agnes remarried to Colonel Brown Chamberlin, a lawyer, politician, and publisher who she met while gathering subscribers for the first edition of her book. She continued to illustrate flowers and plant life, including producing nine plates for Catharine’s 1885 book Studies of Plant Life in Canada. Her work was shown in various exhibitions, a few of which she was able to attend. She died in Toronto in 1913.
Her second daughter, Geraldine Moodie, known as "Cherry", was one of the first professional women photographers in Canada and has been largely celebrated for her photographs of nineteenth and early twentieth century Canada. She traveled throughout the country with her husband and photographed many Indigenous communities, as well as the activities of the North West Mounted Police (now known as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police).
We would like to thank Heritage York for allowing us the opportunity to create this exhibition. Special thanks to board members Madeleine McDowell, Joy Cohnstaedt, and Margo Duncan for their expertise, knowledge, and guidance throughout this exhibition. Our sincere appreciation to Emily Flynn and Chelsea Innes for creating the video components of the exhibition. Thank you to Professor Agnieszka Chalas, University of Toronto, for her support throughout this project.
Our sincere gratitude to the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library as a repository for Agnes' collection and in their help with our research. Thank you to the Toronto Public Library and Library and Archives Canada for their many contributions to this exhibition.
Our thanks to Mary Louise Ashbourne who donated her 1869, 2nd edition Canadian Wild Flowers book to Heritage York, which was featured in the exhibition videos.
For the videos, special thanks to:
For more resources on Agnes, please check out the following:
Masters of Museum Studies
University of Toronto, 2021
This exhibition was curated and designed by Alynese Nightingale and Chloé Houde for Heritage York, 2020-2021