THE CHAMBERLIN COLLECTION consists of original paintings of Canadian flora and mushrooms by Agnes Chamberlin (1833–1913), dating from the period 1863 to the 1900s. Agnes Chamberlin was the daughter of a celebrated Upper Canadian literary figure, Susanna Moodie, best known for her account of pioneer life Roughing it in the Bush, first published in 1852. At the age of seventeen Agnes married Charles Fitzgibbon and moved to Toronto from Belleville. Her first attempt to paint wild flowers came in 1863, when her aunt Catherine Parr Traill, Susanna Moodie’s sister, showed Agnes the manuscript of a projected book on Canadian flora. As no publisher would consider the book because it lacked illustrations, Agnes decided to try to supply these herself. She began to draw plants from nature, producing accurate renditions of the wild flowers she found around her home near the Humber River. She continued to draw from nature throughout her life, and the collection includes over two hundred paintings of individual flowers, as well as groups of flowers, and over 70 paintings of fungi. Most are mounted on heavy paper and have botanical names supplied on the mounts. The brief description includes the English common name and Latin botanical name as well as the dimensions of the original.
In addition to the original paintings the Chamberlin digital collection also includes early editions of Canadian Wild Flowers and two editions of Studies of Plant Life. The story of how Canadian Wild Flowers came to be published is a fascinating one and throws considerable light on the state of publishing in Canada at the time, as well as on the determination and talent of Agnes herself. When her husband died in 1865 Agnes was left with very limited means, and set to work to supply illustrations for thirty of the flowers described in Mrs. Traill's manuscript, depicting them in ten groupings. Having secured five hundred subscribers for the work, she then found there was no lithographer in Toronto willing to undertake the printing. She secured a lithographic stone and proceeded to prepare the drawings herself, which were then printed by Chewett & Co. She then set to, with the assistance of some friends, and hand-coloured the whole edition as well. The resulting book, Canadian Wild Flowers, is a landmark in Canadian printing—the first lavish “coffee table” book with coloured illustrations to be printed and published entirely in Canada.
Most of these original paintings have not previously been reproduced. In addition to the ten watercolours first published in Canadian Wild Flowers in 1868, nine more paintings were reproduced as illustrations for Catherine Parr Traill's work, Studies of Plant Life in Canada, published in 1885. Twelve additional paintings were reproduced in black and white for the second edition of Studies of Plant Life published in 1906. Four paintings of mushrooms were reproduced in a report on edible fungi published by the Geological Survey.