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 Isabella McHutcheson Sinclair  ( - 1890)



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Lived/Active: Hawaii / Scotland      Known for: botanical, floral, illustrator

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Isabella McHutcheson Sinclair (c. 1840-1890), author and illustrator, became a noted painter in Hawaii of botanical subjects.

She was born near Stirling, Scotland, and it is thought her father, employed by by the Inland Revenue Service, was the brother of Elizabeth McHutcheson Sinclair, the woman who bought the Hawaiian island of Niihau with her sons in 1864.

The William McHutcheson family migrated in 1861 from Scotland to Canterbury, New Zealand, probably to live near the family of Elizabeth Sinclair. Isabella had genteel education and artistic abilities were obvious from the time she was young. She became knowledgeable in the lore of the Maoris and understood their knowledge of flowering New Zealand plants.

At age twenty-five, Isabella accepted the proposal of marriage from
her cousin Francis "Frank" Sinclair, who had moved to Hawaii in 1863 with his widowed mother Elizabeth Sinclair and other relatives, all of whom had settled on their newly purchased Hawaiian island of Niihau. The newlyweds later built their home at Makaweli, Kauai where they looked after the family
property and business interests on that island. Isabella freely explored the plant life of the Waimea and Olokele regions, comparing them to the New Zealand species she knew so well.

Collecting numerous specimens on both Kauai and Niihau, Sinclair set about to preserve them through painting a series of watercolors and then identifying each flowering specimen with its Hawaiian name, botanical name, natural habitat, and blossoming period.

She compiled these materials into a large folio-size book, "Indigenous
Flowers of the Hawaiian Islands" (1885), the first book featuring color plates of Hawaiian flowers and plants. She was assisted in plant identification by Dr. Joseph D. Hooker, director of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, England, who sent her the correct scientific name for each of the flowering plants she
had sent as specimens.

In 1884-1885, Sinclair and her husband journeyed to England, where she met with Hooker, who rechecked her plants' scientific names before the publication of the book. She was also assisted by the native Hawaiian community, who appreciated her work and added to her botanical knowledge.

Sinclair's private life appears to have been very happy, although she and her husband had no children. Her husband was a businessman as well as a scholar, writing numerous books on ballads and poems of the Pacific, memories of living and traveling in the Pacific region, and fiction dealing with Oceana and Hawaii.

After Isabella's death in California, where she was working on another book, Frank Sinclair married her widowed sister Wilhelmina McHutcheson and,
after selling his interests in Hawaii to his nephews, moved to England.

On the island of Kauai at Kokee Museum, the delicate pictures Isabella Sinclair had painted of Hawaii's most beautiful flowering plants can still be seen as treasured pieces of nineteenth-century Hawaiiana.

The watercolor plates that Isabella Sinclair made for her Indigenous Flowers
of the Hawaiian Islands are on display in the Kokee Museum, Kauai,
Hawaii. Copies of her book are at the Kokee Museum and in the
Hawaii-Pacific Collection of Hamilton Library, University of
Hawaii in Honolulu. Additional papers and information can be
found in the Kauai Museum, Hawaii.

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