S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science

Roupell, Mrs Arabella Elizabeth (botanical illustration)

Born: 23 March 1817, Newport, Shropshire, England.
Died: 30 July 1914, Reading, Berkshire, England.

Arabella E. Piggott, botanical artist, was the daughter of Reverend John D. Piggott of Edgmond, Shropshire, and his wife Frances Bevan. On 16 September 1840 she married Thomas B. Roupell (1809-1889), with whom she had five surviving sons. Thomas was an official of the British East India Company on leave in England at the time and they returned to Madras (now Chennai), India, early the next year. There Arabella began painting the Indian flora. In March 1843 she and her husband arrived at the Cape on leave, mainly so that Arabella could recover her health. Soon after her arrival she started painting local plants for her own amusement and proved herself to be a meticulous and painstaking artist who's paintings were both accurate and beautiful. Most of her specimens could have been collected within some 150 km of Cape Town, but she seems also to have copied some paintings made by others.

Her paintings came to the attention of Dr Nathaniel Wallich*, superintendent of the Botanic Gardens of Calcutta (now Kolkata), who visited the Cape at this time and assisted her with the collection and identification of specimens. When he retired he visited the Roupells in Madras in April 1846 and Arabella allowed him to take some of her paintings to England. With the assistance of her brother-in-law, Dr George L. Roupell, and Sir William Hooker, the director of Kew Gardens, arrangements were made for their publication. The resulting work, Specimens of the flora of South Africa; Cape flowers by a lady (London, 1849) included ten large plates of her drawings, with descriptions written by W.H. Harvey*. Nine of the plates depicted Cape flowers and the tenth Roupellia grata from Sierra Leone. (The genus Roupellia was named after Dr George Roupell and other members of the family who had contributed to botany.) The publication was dedicated to Dr Wallich and has become a rare item of Africana. Arabella was a modest woman and would not agree to the publication of her name on the book, but she was identified as the artist in a footnote of a review of the book written by Sir William Hooker for the London Journal of Botany.

By 1845 the Roupells were back in Madras. Arabella continued painting flowers, producing a further 100 or so water-colours. They returned to England in 1859, when her husband retired after the dissolution of the East Indian Company, and bought a small estate in or near Reading, in Berkshire. Her unpublished flower paintings were lost sight of for many years, but in 1950 the widow of one of her grandsons presented 91 of them to General J.C. Smuts. Most of them depict South African flowers and they are now in the Bolus Herbarium, University of Cape Town. Eleven of them were published by Allan Bird under the title More Cape flowers by a lady (Johannesburg, 1964). Later he published reproductions of these, with two additions and biographical information about the artist, as Arabella Roupell, pioneer artist of Cape flowers (Johannesburg, 1975). One further painting by her, signed A.E.R. and depicting an erica, was in the possession of Lady D'Urban (who met Arabella at the Cape) and is now in the Africana Museum, Johannesburg. The Swiss botanist Meissner named Protea roupelliae after her. She was the pioneer flower artist of South Africa.

List of sources:
Anon. Cape flowers by a lady. Africana Notes and News, 1952/3, Vol. 10, pp. 142-145.

Bird, A. Arabella Roupell, pioneer artist of Cape flowers. Johannesburg: South African Natural History Publication Company, 1975.

Dictionary of South African biography, Vol. 4, 1981.

Gunn, M. Mrs Aralbella Elizabeth Roupell. Africana Notes and News, 1951, Vol. 8(2), p. 55.

Gunn, M. & Codd, L.E. Botanical exploration of southern Africa. Cape Town: Balkema, 1981.

Kennedy, R.F. Catalogue of pictures in the Africana Museum. Johannesburg: Africana Museum, 1968.

Oxford dictionary of national biography. Oxford University Press, 2004.

[Pole Evans, I.B.] Exhibition of water-colours by Mrs Roupell. Africana Notes and News, March 1952, Vol. 9(2), pp. 33-35.

Ritchings, F.G. Mrs Arabella Roupell and her "Cape flowers". Quarterly Bulletin of the South African Library, 1972, Vol. 27, pp. 4-14.

Smith, A. Ou botaniese boeke met illustrasies van Suid-Afrikaanse plante in die Johannesburgse Openbare Biblioteek. Lantern, Julie 1982, pp. 42-49.

Compiled by: C. Plug