Malcolm Howie Watercolours

A collection held in the University of Melbourne Herbarium (MELU).

Watercolors of Victorian Fungi by Malcolm Howie

A walk in the Victorian bush in Autumn after rain reveals a vast array of mushrooms, the fruiting bodies of fungi that are only visible for a short period of time when they are above ground to release and disperse their spores. Fresh fruiting bodies exhibit a range of beautiful colours and forms, important in identifying species, including different types of mushrooms, coral fungi, woody pore fungi, jelly fungi and cup fungi. However, when dried as herbarium specimens fungal fruiting bodies usually appear drab and uninteresting to the eye – although informative to the trained mycologist and used for study of microscopic features or DNA.

Today, photography captures the fresh colour and form of fungi in their natural habitat. But in the past, paintings were made to illustrate these qualities, and our Melbourne University herbarium (MELU) has an exquisite and valuable set of watercolours of Victorian Fungi.

Malcolm Howie (1900-1936) illustrated life-size about 200 species of Victorian fungi, mostly during the period 1931-1935. Mycologist Tom May describes the paintings as "precise in form and colour and jump off the page as accurate depictions of their species".

A set of Howie's original paintings is held in the Sate Botanical Collection, Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria. In addition, our herbarium (MELU) also has a set of 80 sheets of watercolours. These had been commissioned, from Howie, in the 1930's by Dr Ethel McLennan (1891-1983) for the School of Botany. Dr McLennan, a leading plant pathologist and mycologist, appreciated the accuracy and beauty of Howie's paintings. The MELU paintings, together with herbarium specimens of fungi and rare books, were on show to the public in the University's Baillieu library during 2015 in the exhibition: The Howie Fungi Watercolours: from Botanical Art to Scientific Research. The paintings have been photographed and can be viewed below.