DRAWING A PICTURE OF ANNA | The search for Lady Barrow

Researching Sir John Barrow has led me to discover a few things that I want to learn more about. Four things have really caught my interest are –

  1. That he was born in Dragley Beck village, which was named after the stream that runs next to the cottage. Dragley Beck apparently means ‘stream of the dragon’.

  2. That he went on a whaling expedition to Greenland when he was 16 years old.

  3. That before he went to South Africa, John Barrow spent three days a week studying Cape plants and is described as a ‘well informed amateur botanist and geologist’.

  4. That when in South Africa between 1797 and 1802 he met and married his wife, Anna Maria Truter (later Barrow) who was a South African botanical artist.

It’s Lady Barrow who I want to focus on for now, and to try to put together the pieces of her story.

According to her Wikipedia page, Anna Maria Truter was born on the 17th August 1777 in the Cape, also known as the Cape of Good Hope. The Cape was a British Colony, but before this had been a Dutch colony of the same name, the ‘Kaap de Goede Hoop’ which was established in 1652. There were several battles over it’s ownership between the British and the Dutch. The Cape was under Dutch rule from 1652 to 1795 and again from 1803 to 1806. (Bear with me here, I promise this is all relevant to the story!). There’s no mention of the people who lived there before colonisation, or how all of this impacted them.

When John Barrow and Anna Maria Truter married in 1799 the Cape was under British rule, but it had been under Dutch rule from 1652 to 1795 before this. Which makes me wonder what her life and culture had been like before it was won by the British. What languages could she speak, and did she identify as British in any way? Her father, Petrus Johannes Truter had been an official in the East Indian Company, which was an English trading company, but both he and her mother, Johanna Ernestina Blankenberg, have names that sound Dutch to me (although this is not my specialist area I’ll admit).

There is very little other information about Anna Maria as immediately the page starts to talks about her husband and his various roles… expect for this line that caught me at the end of the paragraph – ‘By the time she left the Cape in 1803, Anna Maria had assembled the first known portfolio of Cape flower studies and landscapes.’

Why, I wondered, did they leave? This, at least, I discovered. The couple had bought a house in 1800 in Cape Town and planned to stay in South Africa, but when the colony returned to the Dutch as part of the Treaty of Amiens they decided to move to England – it seems as though they had to because John Barrow wouldn’t have held a position anymore.

But then on to the next line – surely assembling the first know portfolio of Cape flower studies and landscapes is quite an achievement I thought. There must be loads of information about her on the internet!

But no, no there is not.

I googled every variation of her name, adding ‘artist’ ‘botanist’ and ‘botanical illustrator’. There are several lists of the 7 (!) children they had, 6 of whom survived past infancy. And many many mentions of her husband’s achievements, but almost nothing else. I thought perhaps if I read Sir John Barrow’s books I might learn more, but a small volume I got out of the library ‘Sir John Barrow – 250th Anniversary’ states that ‘(he) was a private and formal person who placed duty to his nation above all else: even his wife and children get only one mention in his autobiography.’ (p. 9)

I did find this tiny paragraph about her in a book on Google Books called ‘Botanical Exploration Southern Africa’ By Mary Gunn, L. E. W. Codd from 1981.

Anna Barrow info.png

Interestingly, ‘Sir John Barrow – 250th Anniversary’ also says her husband ‘was an excellent botanist, having visited Kew Gardens many times to study the plants; he identified and recorded many of the plants he found in the Cape, naming some for the first time.’ (p.9)

Was a mutual interest in botany and natural history what brought the two together perhaps? Or is this too romantic, given that matches were often based on social and financial status then?

To have created a portfolio of studies of the Cape landscape and its flora must have meant she had a passion and interest in this project. Did she have any formal training as an artist beforehand? Who were they painted for, and were they exhibited? To try and learn more I’ve emailed both the Museum Africa in Johannesburg and the librarian at the Botanical Research Institute in Pretoria asking for help in finding any more about Anna Maria Barrow’s work or story.

There is one image of her work online, from a book called South African Botanical Art, edited by Marion Arnold, (Fernwood Press, 2001). It’s caption says ‘Sutherlandia frutescens, 2 species of Wurmbea, Hermannia pinnata and a small Senecio, c. 1800, pencil and watercolour’.


I love the warm colours of the flowers against the the dark curves of the foliage, and the delicate brush strokes, especially on the two larger stems. I also really like the composition – the way the different plants weave around one another giving the study energy.

I keep thinking about what it must have been like to leave South Africa. To have created this study of the botany of the Cape she must have had a real understanding and connection to this landscape. And yet after she got married she quickly ended up living thousands of miles away in London, in a completely different climate, apparently no longer painting and having lots of children.

Maybe this is what she wanted, and she was happy as a woman of such privilege to abandon her art and take on this role as a wife and mother, which was of course the expectation of the time. But as a mum myself, who has had to really work to continue with my practice as an artist, there’s a part of me that doesn’t want this to be true. I keep imagining her drawing in Kew Gardens, managing to keep her passions for drawing and botany alive in her new life.

Eleanor ChaneyComment