Botanical illustrator Edith Rewa Barrett finds all the inspiration she needs in her leafy eyrie in the Blue Mountains.
Tucked away in the tree-lined streets of Blackheath, NSW, a stately 1920s mansion is home to illustrator and designer . Inside, in her sun-dappled studio, or out in the gardens and national parks of the Blue Mountains, Edith works assiduously, sketching every tiny detail of the flora she collects. The drawings she creates for her brand, Edith Rewa, are modern versions of the long tradition of botanical illustration. But instead of assigning them to the pages of weighty scientific tomes, Edith offers her pictures as limited edition giclée prints and digitally prints them onto pillowcases, tote bags and silk scarves. These delicate designs, which she calls “wearable museums”, have seen her cultivate a substantial online following.
Botany and natural history have long been twin inspirations for the 25-year-old artist, and so her recently adopted domestic setting couldn’t be better suited. Nearly every window of the house commands a view of its rambling European garden, complete with roses, maples, conifers and a driving circle. However, it’s the wilderness of eucalyptus, coachwood and sassafras trees on her doorstep that she finds most entrancing. Her affection for local flora is well-represented indoors, too. In Edith’s homely studio, the walls are papered with her detailed botanical illustrations, and on almost every surface sits a vase filled with fresh or dried flowers.
“I feel a little disconnected when drawing something from a photo,” she says. “I like to be able to turn a plant over and look at all the parts.” It’s this affinity with nature the young illustrator struggled to develop in Sydney, where she worked for design studio Longina Phillips for three years. “I didn’t feel quite at home,” Edith says of her city lifestyle. “I used to bring my bike up on the train and head out to the national parks to draw.” In late 2015, the opportunity to relocate to the mountains came when three of her friends, all with creative streaks themselves, discovered the four-bedroom rental in Blackheath, about a 90-minute drive west of the Sydney CBD. “It was just one of those fortuitous situations,” she says. “I was ready for a change, but I wasn’t brave enough to make it alone.”
A timely email from a publisher in the US, commissioning Edith to illustrate a book, gave her the extra nudge she needed. “It was all decided in one weekend,” she says, laughing. The house inspection took place on a sunny day in October, when “the waratahs and rhododendrons were in bloom,” she recalls. “I thought to myself, ‘I don’t have a choice.’” While the book’s illustrations depict North American plant life, rather than Australian varieties, Edith has found local gardens to be rich grounds for exploration and inspiration. “I’m always looking over people’s fences and asking them ‘Do you have a persimmon or passionfruit?’” she says, beaming. “I love it up here so much, it’s a really wonderful community.”
Working on the book has been a learning experience
— she spent precious time trying to locate species to illustrate, even trekking to Hobart — but living in the mountains came naturally. Edith spent her childhood on an eight-hectare hobby farm in Yendon, Victoria, not far from Ballarat. “Mum was a big native plant grower and we had a large, beautiful garden,” she says. “We grew up with an appreciation of plants.” Her family also made two brief sojourns to England, where her admiration for greenery was nurtured even further.
Academic pursuits eventually took Edith to Melbourne, where she completed a Bachelor of Arts (Textile Design) at RMIT. In the second year of her degree, Edith undertook a six-month exchange at the Estonian Academy of Arts in Tallinn, the capital city of Estonia. “I’d never even heard of the place,” she says. “But I looked up pictures and there were these orange turrets and lots of forest. It looked like a bit of an adventure — and it was.”
When Edith returned to Australia, it wasn’t only a respect for intricate Estonian textiles that she brought back with her. “There was a lot more freedom there,” she muses. “I developed my own style and I was probably a lot stronger in myself when I returned. And now, being up here, I’m constantly inspired. I just want to keep learning.”
Ensconced in the mountains, surrounded by her subjects, her extraordinary talent is coming into full bloom.