Tkaronto, also known as Toronto, and its surrounding areas have been the home of Indigenous peoples that have cared for and lived on these lands for millennia, including the Anishinaabe, the Haudenosaunee, the Ojibwe, the Wendat, the Tionontati, the Seneca, and the Mississaugas, and is still today home to diverse First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples.

Heritage York acknowledges the lands we are on are part of and subject to the Dish With One Spoon Wampum Belt covenant, an agreement between the Haudenosaunee and the Confederacy of the Anishinaabe and allied nations, to peaceably share and care for the resources around the Great Lakes including along the Humber River. We celebrate the Covenant which binds all generations to protect and care for these sacred lands on which we gather today.

Agnes Dunbar Moodie Fitzgibbon Chamberlin was a botanical illustrator who, along with her family, influenced the emerging field of botanical studies in nineteenth-century Canada. This exhibition explores the life and legacy of Agnes Fitzgibbon through her impacts on the emerging field of botany, life as a settler in Canada, and how her and her family’s work inspired future generations of authors and artists.

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.

In the video below, Madeleine describes how the tour was created and takes us on this walk through time. Closed captioning is available by clicking the CC function on the YouTube video, or in the transcription of the videos linked at the top of the page.

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.

Botany in the Victorian Era

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.

“Return from the Humber,” 1854-1856, MSS 05044. Courtesy of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto.
Life in Early Ontario

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.

Land acquired by the government was given to British citizens as an incentive to settle the colony. It was at this time that the Stricklands made a home in Upper Canada. Agnes’ aunt and mother moved to Upper Canada with their husbands in the early 1830s. Motivated by economic hardships in England, the prospect of land, and opportunities for themselves and their families, Susanna and Catharine were part of a wave of emigration of middle-class English families in the mid-nineteenth century.

Susanna & Catharine

Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill wrote and reminisced about life in the unfamiliar land that was untouched by the industrialization that they had known in England. Connecting to nature through botany was a solace for the loneliness and isolation they experienced. Botany also provided an opportunity to develop their knowledge on the medicinal uses of wild plants, as they were far away from any medical help. Susanna and Catharine acquired knowledge of plant life from the Anishinaabe, the Indigenous inhabitants of the area, who taught them their names for plants and instructed them on their use.

Agnes’ maternal grandfather and grandmother, Thomas Strickland and Elizabeth Homer, ensured that their two sons and six daughters received comprehensive education as they raised them in the countryside of Suffolk, England. Growing up surrounded by nature cultivated Susanna and Catharine’s love of nature and offered much inspiration for writing and drawing. Writing began as a hobby for the Strickland children and as they grew older, it became a way to support themselves financially. Agnes’ mother and most of her aunts published a variety of written works throughout England and Canada, which included biographies, historical accounts, poems, and children’s books.

Susanna Moodie in Henry J. Morgan’s Types of Canadian women and of women who are or have been connected with Canada, 1903.

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 Moira River, Belleville 1910. Courtesy of the Toronto Public Library.
Drawings by Susanna Moodie: Pink Roses, 1867 (Acc. No. 1973-25-16); Carnations (Acc. No. 1973-23-1); Dandelions, c. 1870 (Acc. No. 1973-25-12); Bunch of Wildflowers, c. 1870 (Acc. No. 1973-25-13) / Library and Archives Canada
Catharine Parr-Traill in Henry J. Morgan’s Types of Canadian women and of women who are or have been connected with Canada, 1903.

“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.

Catharine Parr Traill is seen holding a baby (third from the left) at the Strickland homestead, her brother Samuel Strickland's home (standing second from the right), c. 1860. Martha Ann Kidd / Library and Archives Canada / PA-045005.
Agnes' Life & Work

As a long time enthusiast of Agnes’ work, Madeleine McDowell has performed considerable research into her life. In the video below, Madeleine shares the story of Agnes’ life, her marriages, children, and work.

Agnes learned how to paint and draw from her mother, Susanna. Her first professional experience with painting flowers was in 1863 while illustrating her aunt Catharine’s manuscript on Canadian wildflowers. Agnes used her skills to illustrate the plants she saw in her everyday life, especially in the Dover Court woods in Toronto and along the Humber River plain. The Humber River, known as Cobechenonk (Leave the Canoes and Go Back) by the Mississaugas and Niwa’ah Onega’gaih’ih (Little Thundering Waters) by the Senecas, has been an important place for Indigenous peoples. Part of the Carrying Place Trail, it was a site of travel and trade for thousands of years. It also became a site of commerce and industrialization by early colonizers.

The Story of Canadian Wild Flowers

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.

“Canadian wild flowers (1st ed., 1868),” 1868, QK201 .C43. Courtesy of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto.

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.

Subscription book for the first edition of Canadian Wild Flowers. A sample of the manuscript was included, along with blank pages to record the name, place of residence, quantity ordered, and payment information of subscribers. Agnes and Catharine would have traveled with this to recruit buyers. “Canadian Wild Flowers Subscription Book,” 1867, MS Coll 00112. Courtesy of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto.
Scene from a lithographic printing office. From left to right, a stone is being smoothed in preparation for drawing; a painting is being copied onto a stone; copies of lithographs are being produced. “Prang's aids for object teaching. Lithographer.” Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Check out the video below to see a demonstration of how Agnes would have created her prints by using lithography, a unique printing technique that operates on the principle that water and grease repel each other.

Agnes ended up creating 5000 prints of her drawings for the first run of 500 books, each containing ten illustrations. In order to maximize what she could include in those ten prints print, she combined various flowers on each page.

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.

“Canadian wild flowers 2nd ed., 1869," 1869, cham f 00002. Courtesy of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto.
“They are so closely copied from the originals, designed and colored with such a masterly hand, that they seem to live and bloom upon the paper. Think of a pair of female hands, designing, lithographing and coloring 5000 plates for this book, each plate containing three or four specimens of flowers. It is enough to turn one’s locks grey the thought of such an herculean labour.”

Review of "Canadian Wild Flowers" in Journal of Education, vol. 22, no. 2, Feb. 1869.

Agnes' Legacy

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.

Agnes’ work has been featured in a number of exhibitions both during her lifetime and afterwards. Her artwork was shown in exhibitions in England, the United States, and Canada.

Text and images courtesy of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto.

Agnes’ children continued on the family legacy as artists and authors. Her first daughter, Mary Agnes Fitzgibbon, became a prolific author and historian.

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).

Visual artists, photographers and naturalists continue to be inspired by the native flora and fauna of the Humber Plain and the Humber River. Since 1923, members of the Toronto Field Naturalists have shared their passion for nature with the public through walks and talks. Lambton House Tavern, on Old Dundas, has been a site for celebration of the artwork of Agnes Dunbar Moodie Fitzgibbon Chamberlin. The Aggie’s Wildflowers Walk takes you to explore Magwood Sanctuary and see the descendents of the flowers that Agnes drew during her lifetime. Research collections on her work are held at the Art Gallery Of Ontario, Library and Archives Canada, and Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, among others.

Madeleine McDowell pointing out plants in the Magwood Sanctuary during the Aggie’s Wildflowers Walk, 2018. Photograph by Lance Gleich.

Canadian Wild Flowers was a founding work in Canadian natural science. As the first botanical book printed in Canada, it laid the foundations for further study of Canadian horticulture. Canadian Wild Flowers remains a fundamental work in Canadian botanical studies to this day.

Flowers found in the Magwood Sanctuary. Photographs by Lance Gleich, 2018. Drawings by Agnes Chamberlin, MS Coll 00112, courtesy of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto.


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:

  • Bensound.com
  • Pixabay.com
  • Pixels.com
  • Stock.adobe.com

For more resources on Agnes, please check out the following:

Alynese Nightingale

Chloé Houde

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