Phillip Island & District Historical Society

Euphemia Henderson, Phillip Island botanical collector for Ferdinand von Mueller, and artist

Last updated on 23-Jun-22

The Lady Painter of Wildflowers and the Government Botanist


(A talk given by Maureen Matthews to the Phillip Island and District Historical Society in Cowes in June 2022)


I would like to tell you about an accomplished wildflower artist who lived and worked on Phillip Island in the mid-1800s, and also talk about her romance and friendship with Ferdinand von Mueller.


Euphemia Henderson was the sister of Georgiana McHaffie, wife of John David McHaffie. John and his brother took over a lease of the whole of Phillip Island in 1842 for the grazing of sheep.


John and Georgiana must have been well off, because they also had a house in St Kilda, to which they escaped in the colder winter months to attend the theatre and concerts and enjoy the social life of Melbourne. John had known Ferdinand von Mueller for many years.


Euphemia Ethel Elizabeth Spencer Middleton Henderson was born in 1822 in Valparaiso, Chile. She was one of at least five children born to James Henderson, a captain in the Royal Navy, and mother Catherine, nee Black. She was baptised in Fife, Scotland, on the 8th March 1822.

sgU5W4Mjp5eplQQHCyOiDw9g1ZFBTIfTindJ2lK4.jpegA studio portrait of the young Euphemia Henderson. From Collecting Ladies: Ferdinand von Mueller and Women Botanical Illustrators, written by Penny Olsen


Euphemia spent her earlier years on a family estate on Guernsey, and later on the Isle of Man. Euphemia arrived in Australia in 1853 with her architect-artist brother, John Henderson. She worked as a governess, and when not working she lived with the McHaffies on Phillip Island.


It seems likely that Euphemia, as Georgiana’s sister, might have met von Mueller while staying with the McHaffies at St Kilda.


Euphemia painted watercolours of the beautiful wildflowers growing on Phillip Island. She often brought the plants and paintings to Ferdinand von Mueller to be identified. He was the Government Botanist and had established the National Herbarium of Victoria. He was also the first director of the Melbourne Botanic Gardens.

nRXU9fk1jXqON8pn6hYQcEjTc3CGEfNlmBHUtvZE.jpegOne of Euphemia's wildflower floral/botanical artworks. National Herbarium collection. 


Von Mueller was born in 1825 in Rostock, a sovereign state of Germany. Five of his brothers and sisters had died in childhood, and when he was nine his father died of tuberculosis (consumption).


Another sister died when he was 19, also of consumption.


Mueller was a good scholar and not long before his mother’s death in 1839 she arranged for him to be apprenticed as a pharmacist. He left home when 14 to study pharmacy. This involved the study of botany and he collected plants, making many scientific contacts.


In 1847, just before he and his two sisters sailed for Australia, Mueller was awarded a Ph D for his botanical thesis.


Once in Adelaide he quickly found work in pharmacy. In 1852, lured by the goldfields, he moved to Victoria. In 1853 Lieutenant Governor Charles La Trobe appointed him the first Government Botanist of Victoria.


Mueller moved into the Gardener’s Cottage in the Botanical Gardens and established the Melbourne Herbarium. He also began a series of botanical explorations of Victoria.

Eu8hWdskVZOSXrPurSHRCM7KUC0pWBPzkXWQj6wA.jpegFerdinand von Mueller. National Herbarium collection.


He explored the Buffalo Ranges, then went to the upper reaches of the Goulburn River and across Gippsland to the coast. The neighbourhoods of Port Albert and Wilsons Promontory were explored, and the journey of some 2,400 kilometres was completed along the coast back to Melbourne.


He later explored the Victoria River and other portions of North Australia. He found nearly 800 species in Australia new to science. Many of the plants in the National Herbarium of Victoria were collected by him.


Von Mueller appealed for helpers to collect plants and send them to him for identification. He wrote to Australian newspapers, saying: “The world of plants is particularly fitted to attract the attention of the fair sex, who admire the beauties of nature and attend them with womanly care and anxiety.”


And since women could not get paid work in their chosen profession, they had leisure time for doing unpaid work for him! 


“What trouble would it be to collect and preserve flowers, and enclose in an envelope to their destination? How many ladies might devote a few leisure hours to this pursuit?”


Although he might not have paid the women for their labor, he did promise to acknowledge their contribution, and 12,000 of his letters to and from his women collectors survive.


Through her love of plants Euphemia formed a friendship, then a romance, with von Mueller, which began during one of his visits to the McHaffies on Phillip Island.


Euphemia had read Byron to him. They had walked to “their rock”, where he had proposed and she had accepted.


“Beloved bride”, he wrote to her on his way home to Melbourne in the autumn of 1863, “Could these days of immeasurable happiness, which you instilled in me, but have extended! But it is perhaps best as it is, – for in the ardour of my love, so suddenly kindled, I could not help following you constantly and stretching out my arms to touch the talisman”.


He looked forward eagerly to her visit to Melbourne in the following month. She arrived in April for the winter, staying with Georgiana and John at St Kilda. She sewed a Danish flag for von Mueller as the city celebrated the marriage of the Danish Princess Alexandra to the Prince of Wales.


He introduced her as “my fiancé, a greatly talented and enlightened Scottish lady”. 


He wrote to her often that winter, but by August his ardour had cooled and he then addressed her as “My Dear Miss Henderson”. 


The reason, it seemed, was that he had come to believe that marital bliss depended on the blessing of children, and Euphemia was 42 years old. He was 38. He also informed her that he suffered from ill health, and it would not be fair to burden her with his care. It was a fact that many of his family relations had died of consumption.

qRsi65gqB69GgGjmwaCIP4vYoBTak1Q7LhLq6i5i.jpegA later studio portrait of Euphemia Henderson. Phillip Island & District Historical Society collection


His message was delivered by a respected Melbourne doctor, David John Thomas, not by von Mueller in person. Euphemia was not convinced of his earnestness when she wrote to him, so he wrote to her in reply:


“Though you regard in your letter the reasons, which I frankly communicated through Dr Thomas, as absurd, I can only say they are purely based on the laws of life and nature, and were ladies aware of the doctrines of medicine many matrimonial engagements in advanced life would never be carried out and the hopes of many a house never blighted”.


Euphemia and Ferdinand continued to exchange letters, and she marked his birthdays. She sent him plants until 1869, when the McHaffies moved to Yanakie in South Gippsland.


In November 1863 he had sent to her as a conciliatory birthday gift a davenport made of Australian woods and carved with a kangaroo and an emu. In one of its secret drawers Euphemia hid for 40 years his letters to her, disclosing them just before her death.

qoPrRu83v1vu6nTNYoy3isYwpGs6LWx7ebqRmWnZ.jpegExample of von Mueller's handwriting. He was an extraordinarily prolific writer of letters. A major project is underway at the National herbarium to analyse and publish his letters.


The Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne, in partnership with Australian and New Zealand designers and manufacturers, had created a collection based on Euphemia’s paintings.


The Euphemia Henderson Collection includes plates, place-mats, coasters, prints, greeting cards, notebooks, pocket mirrors, bed linen, clothing, wallpaper and table lamps. The pieces are available online at various outlets.


Royalties from the sales of the Euphemia Henderson range were directed towards the Royal Botanic Gardens scientific research and conservation projects.

Sx8zxQd1TqiJmVbhwyrtfRlQq45tBCwjkVNXs4Tq.jpegA display at the meeting of placemats designed using Euphemia's floral paintings. Photo: Ellen Berryman


Along with her wildflower artworks, 44 letters from von Mueller to Euphemia survive, and are held in the State Botanical Collection at the National Herbarium of Victoria.


Euphemia died of gastroenteritis in Kew in 1907 aged 86 years.


Von Mueller died aged 71 on 10th October 1896 and is buried in the St Kilda cemetery. 

u4CKRyzBcyPqQUdBDbzHd9C7i3OOEvyDrEbzWtw4.jpegFerdinand von Mueller's grave monument, St Kilda Cemetery. Photo: Alan West. Phillip Island and District Historical Society collection


In 1867 he had been granted in Germany an “Order of the Crown” entitling him to use Von in his surname, indicating nobility.


In 1871 he was granted a baronetcy by the King and Queen of Wurtenburg, a state in South-west Germany. BARON was a hereditary title, which may have made him wish for an heir.