Judy Cuppaidge is an intrepid explorer and a marvelous and witty storyteller. She’s an icon in the world of botanical drawing, painting and gardening.
Now in her 90s, this remarkable Australian woman will be profiled tomorrow night (July 30) on ABC TV’s Gardening Australia.
It’s an accolade well-deserved. Judy still lives independently in her home on the shores of Sydney Harbour, although her failing eyesight means she can no longer paint.
Judy’s search for the perfect flower – before it was forever lost to deforestation, encroaching roads, houses and people – has taken her across the Pacific to remote islands, The Americas, Fiji, New Zealand, through bustling cities as well as mainland rainforests, via abandoned airfields and back to her own backyard in Australia.
In 2004 Rosalie Higson wrote a profile of Judy in The Australian which read, in part:
Judy began gardening at the age of four when her mother gave her seeds to raise at their home in Beaudesert in southern Queensland. “I’ve never looked back. No child ever does, if you give them seeds and show how to plant them, and see the little green things all shiny coming up, it’s unbelievable to a child,” she says. “So I’ve always been involved with plants and always will be.”
As did many women of her generation, she put art on hold while she raised three children, renovated houses and worked as a landscape gardener, traveling and painting between times. She took up her pen again when her youngest child was 2 1/2 years old. “I was longing to get at it, but I couldn’t so put it out of my mind. It’s important to spend that solid time with children.” Her garden now is compact and easy to care for, yet is packed with treasures, including her favourite rose-pink Queen Emma lily which she remembers growing in great swathes in Hawaii.
The rare, unusual or beautiful plants Judy sought out flower between November and March right across the Pacific, and as she says, you can only be in one place at a time. A good pen (“you must clean it every night, no matter what”), a notebook and intense concentration were the essentials for her painting trips.
When she began traveling in 1960, a trip to Fiji on a prop plane involved two stops on tiny islands to refuel. On locating her flower with the help of local officials, she spread out a groundsheet and got to work. “I sit on the ground very close, carry a notebook and draw a leaf and a petal. Back home, it takes about four weeks or longer to complete.
Her son Pete remembers his childhood in Brisbane in an old run-down pile which Judy made over into a grand house with a splendid garden. He tells us she was once nominated as “the most beautiful woman in Queensland” with her looks reminding people of Elizabeth Taylor and Ava Gardner.
“It wasn’t till she left Brisbane, ‘the bane of the north’ as she now describes it, and entered the second phase of her life as a middle-aged woman that her remarkable natural talents began to manifest themselves,” he says.
Judy moved to Sydney, the city that had always captured her imagination, enrolled in the Horticulture course at Ryde Technical College where she discovered she possessed a rare gift for botanical drawing. She became involved in landscape design and in her professional capacity created many memorable gardens for those fortunate Sydney-siders lucky enough to engage her services. Her son Pete says her client list read like a “who’s who” of Sydney society and she forged many enduring friendships with whom she is in close contact today.
Sadly in later life, Judy’s eyesight has deteriorated and her days as an artist are over.
Of her drawings, old friend Leo Schofield says: “Hers are not the meticulously almost neurotically detailed images that aspire to be photographs, but free and spontaneous expressions of form and colour, individual yet instantly recognisable as the plants that inspire them.”
Judy’s best-known work is her beautiful book, The Flower Seeker: A Painter’s Travels. (Citrus Press 2007).
The book lovingly depicts 32 of her most treasured blooms in ink and watercolours — each flower accompanied by a charming tale. Each painting is the product of intensive work and painstaking effort, sometimes uniquely layering 15 applications of water colouring to obtain just the right nuance and shade.
A life dedicated to raising children, painting flowers and planting gardens seem one well-lived. The Hoopla congratulates Judy and her family on the forthcoming tribute to her life’s work.