This beautiful dessert collection features a plant common in Sydney bushland but unusual as a subject for china painting. The plant is the Fringe Myrtle or Calytrix tetragona. Waratahs, Flannel Flowers, Christmas Bells, Wattle and Gum Leaves are frequent subjects but the Fringe Myrtle has not attracted many artists to its cause. The Museum database notes:
The plate was hand-painted by Louis Bilton (c. 1860-1910), an English artist who spent three years in Sydney, 1885 to 1887, making drawings of Australian flora for ‘The Picturesque Atlas of Australasia’. This monumental three-volume set, published between 1886 and 1888, became one of the most significant cultural projects in 19th-century Australia. Bilton secured this important commission courtesy of Julian R Ashton, a key contributor to the album alongside other artists such as Henry Fullwood, Tom Roberts and Marian Ellis Rowan. While in Sydney, Bilton was a member of the Royal Art Society of NSW.
When Bilton took up employment as a china painter with the well known firm of Doulton & Co in Burslem (Staffordshire, England) in 1892, many of his designs were based on a portfolio of Australian flowers he had sketched in New South Wales. Some of his designs were displayed at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago and won worldwide acclaim; Doulton secured seven of the highest awards in Chicago, the most given to any ceramic company. ‘Louis Bilton’ wrote John Shorter Sr in 1905, ‘shares with Mrs Rowan, the premier position of accurate delineation of our Australian flora, and every National Art Gallery in Australasia I believe, has now permanent record of our gorgeous Flora from his fertile pencil.’
It is also interesting to note that this china painting does not show the flowers of the Fringe Myrtle but the calyces (the outer structure which protects the growing bud). The photo below shows the true flowers of the Fringe Myrtle.
The image below shows the calyces which stay on the plant long after the flowers have fallen off. Their red colouring makes the bush look as though it is still flowering for many weeks. This is clearly what was studied by Louis Bilton for his delicate painting on the Museum’s dessert plate.