Vera Scarth-Johnson, OAM was born in 1912 in Morley, near Leeds, Yorkshire England. She attended school very near the birthplace of James Cook. She was sent to finishing school in Paris, where she found little of interest except the garden. An avid gardener from childhood she was always keen to pursue a career in horticulture. She studied art at both the Leeds College of Art and the St. Albans College of Arts and was keen to pursue a horticultural career but could not find an employer willing to take on a female apprentice.
In 1947 Vera emigrated to Australia, and after some time in Victoria moved north, settling in the Wide Bay district of Queensland, where she purchased a small property near Bundaberg. Initially she grew vegetables and tobacco but soon changed to sugar cane, being only the second woman to obtain a sugar assignment.
In the evenings, particularly in winter, when farm work was less demanding, Vera sketched and painted flowers. In the mid-1960s she heard a radio interview featuring the Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, England. He was discussing how poorly funded botany was, and how the Gardens relied heavily on the voluntary assistance of collectors around the world. Vera wrote to him offering help and enclosed some of her drawings. Thus began her long association with herbaria at Kew.
Vera’s collecting trips, took her travelling over much of Australia – and around the Pacific Islands.
Entranced by the beauty of the Endeavour River valley, in 1972, at the age of 60 Vera settled in Cooktown and began collecting and recording native plants of the region. With Aboriginal friends from the local Guugu Yimithirr people, Vera made extensive trips locating species and recording information on their uses.
Inspired by the early botanical work of Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander and Lieutenant (later Captain) James Cook’s voyage of discovery, she set out to paint the wonderful plants of the area. To her great sorrow, the onset of Parkinson’s disease meant she could only complete 160 works.
In 1990, Vera gave her wonderful collection of botanical illustrations to the people of Cooktown to enrich the public appreciation of the Endeavour River area. The collection is exhibited in the striking building inspired by her – Nature’s PowerHouse, in the beautiful Cooktown Botanic Gardens.
Vera’s wish was that the Nature’s PowerHouse Interpretive Centre would educate both current and future generations about the wonders and the importance of the environment and the need to protect the few remaining pristine parts of the planet and the people of Cooktown, led by the Vera Scarth Johnson society, are the proud guardians of her priceless collection of botanical illustrations.