Pride of California, Lathyrus Splendens, 1914. Margaret Neilson Armstrong. Watercolor and brown ink over graphite, with page design indicated in graphite. Gift of Helena Bienstock, Cynthia MacKay Keegan and Frank E. Johnson, 2010.
Born and raised in New York City, Margaret Armstrong (1867–1944) was an author, book cover designer, field collector, and botanical illustrator. She was among the most influential designers of her time and a source of inspiration for other female book cover designers including Amy M. Sacker, Lee Thayer, and Marion Louise Peabody.
As Armstrong’s career as a book designer progressed, her designs became more fluid and individualized, reflecting the books’ subjects and the development of her Art Nouveau style. With her increasingly colorful, striking book covers, she was in demand as a designer and worked for twenty-one different publishers, producing approximately 270 book cover designs.
She created her Album of American Wildflower Watercolors during this later stage of her career. It contains seventy-three watercolors, forty-seven of which are reproduced in Field Book of Western Wildflowers. Armstrong wrote the latter book in consultation with botany professor John James Thornber, and it was published in 1915 by G. P. Putnam's Sons. Drawings selected for publication were framed with graphite lines to indicate cropping. Near the bottom of most sheets, Armstrong noted where and when she found the flowers she drew (some inscriptions were trimmed when the group was bound). Thirteen drawings at the back of the album, inscribed Hibernia and dated 1911 or 1918, refer to a village in northeastern Florida where an uncle's house enabled the Armstrong family to escape New York winters.