Miss Drake's birth is recorded in the following extract from the Archdeacon's transcript for the village of Skeyton, Norfolk,:- " A true and exact copy taken from the Skeyton Register Book of all the Baptisms, Marriages and Burials within the said Parish from 25th March 1803 - 25th March 1804" : the daughter of John Drake and Sarah his wife/late Sarah (Forman or Freman) Spinster, was born July 24th 1803 and baptized privately July 31st 1803."
Miss Drake, to use the name invariably engraved on her flower and fruit plates, was active artistically for only the relatively short period from about 1831 to 1847. Sarah Anne Drake, to give her full name, was prolific enough during those years to rank with the more productive and admired artists of her time. She drew, or painted approximately 1300 new plants including some sixty engravings. Of that number 354, give or take a few, were of orchids. Her output averaged about 75 paintings a year. Walter Fitch, the most productive artist of the times averaged 250 a year, but his prints latterly show the effect caused by the great speed at which he worked. Drake took pains and revelled in her art.
Miss Drake's achievements were accomplished in association with her patron, the so-called "Father of modern orchidology" John Lindley. Lindley came from the same area in Norfolk that Drake did. He was born at Catton in 1799 just outside Norwich and he married a lady from near there shortly after moving to London in 1822. About eight years later, when his editorial and supervisory duties became so heavy that he lacked sufficient time to do all the botanical illustrations for the many books and periodicals which he wrote or edited, and after his family began to increase, he apparently invited Miss Drake to move to Acton Green to reside with the family. Lindley lived there, all his married life, because it was close to the Horticultural Society's Garden at Chiswick, where he was superintendent. Whether Lindley's motive was to secure a house servant, or a governess, or an artist is unknown. By 1830 or 1831 he was giving Drake lessons in botanical art, because in Wallich's Plantae Asiaticae (1830-32), she did one plate only and that under the "immediate direction " of John Lindley. At the same time the author, Wallich, was pleased to state that she was a "very skilful and elegant artist".
She did become Lindley's artist-in-residence, and also a sort of governess to the Lindley's three children, for about 16 years. She was very much beloved as a member of the family. Five years after "Ducky", as she was known to the Lindleys, returned to Norfolk in 1847, Lindley's daughter Sarah recorded their affection for her in a letter: "We have just received news of a happy wedding in prospect which has made us quite noisy with rejoicing for it is no less than that of our most excellent worthy old friend Ducky, who although no relation, has all our lives been as dear to us. We had no idea there was such a thing, until we now learn that in about a fortnight's time she is to become Mrs. Hastings, the wife of a good and wealthy Norfolk farmer.
Miss Drake was in her late twenties when she went to live with the Lindleys, in 1830, she lived with them until the year 1847 when she returned to the Norwich area. Apparently she moved in with her uncle Daniel Drake , age 77 and his wife Hannah, aged 84, in the village of Fritton, south of Norwich. That is where she is located in the Census records for the year 1851, in which she is described as the niece of Daniel, a farmer of 195 acres and an employer of nine men. She is listed as unmarried, 47 years of age, a farmer's daughter and born in Skeyton. Presumably her own parents were both dead.
It is possible that her station in life at the residence of Daniel Drake and family was that of companion or manageress of the household, given the advanced age of Daniel's wife. She was highly regarded by Daniel to the extent that his will dated 1853 he bequeathed her the sum of fifty guineas, an impressive enough gift for those days. Unfortunately he gave no reason for his act of generosity, ironically, she died before he did.
In 1852, just a year after the Census, while Ducky was still residing at Fritton with Uncle Daniel, she was married. The certified copy of an entry of marriage obtained from the General Register Office, London, states that on 23rd November 1852, Sarah Anne Drake of full age, Spinster, residing at Fritton, married in the parish church, John Sutton Hastings, widower, Farmer, a resident of Longham, Norfolk, in the presence of witnesses, including John W. Drake, possibly another brother. This marriage lasted only five years until her untimely death in 1857.
The certificate of her death from the register office shows that she died on the 9th July , 1857 at the Hall in Longham with the cause of death stated as diabetes, certified, and that it occurred actually in the municipality of Gressenhall. Death certificates of that time were not always medically accurate and "diabetes certified" may be questionable. There were many diseases which were not recognized or named until many years later. The possibility that Drake died as a result of her intensive occupation as a painter and the absorption of toxic poisoning from her painting materials should not be ruled out. She had stopped painting abruptly in 1847 at the height of her powers.
Drake was buried in the graveyard of St. Andrew's Church, Longham, Norfolk. She was the second of Hasting's three wives, the last being Anne, Lindley's sister. All four were eventually buried under the same horizontal gravestone. The engraving on it read "In memory of Barbara Ann the beloved wife of John S. Hastings who died the 20th October 1847 in the 59th year of her age. Eye hath not seen nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of the man the things which God hath prepared for them " (that love Him.), and Sarah Anne ( Drake ) his beloved wife who departed this life the 9th day of July in the 54th year of her age, and of the above John Sutton Hastings who died July 9th 1869 in the 79th year of his life, also of Anne Hastings nee Lindley widow of the above died June 23rd 1887 aged 86 years". The original stone, which had deteriorated badley, was restored in 1997 with the same wording, through the efforts of Lawrence Duttson. Lawrence Duttson's efforts are now being directed towards having a plaque erected in the church itself as a memorial to Drake. ( Anyone interested in assisting in this effort is invited to write to Lawrence Duttson at 80 Esmond Road, London W4 1JF. )
Obviously, Miss Drake, flower painter extraordinary, led an obscure life. Her name was not well enough known during her active career as a painter even among those who read the contemporary orchid literature. All of the publications in which her paintings appeared, because of their limited circulation or extremely high subscription prices, or because they are written in botanical jargon or Latin, were read by very few orchid enthusiasts.
Surprisingly, one of the best places to see Drake's paintings is in the corridors of the Ritz Carlton hotel in the United States, where her plates have been framed and bolted to the walls in their corridors and rooms. Look out for them the next time you stay at the Ritz.
The Orchidology of Mexico and Guatemala (1837 - 1843 )
Sertum Orchidaceum (1838 )
The Botany of HMS Sulphur ( 1836 - 1842 )
Plantae Asiaticae Rariores ( 1830 - 1832 )
Illustrations of the Botany and other branches of the Natural History of the Himalayan Mountains ( 1833 - 1939 )