Lucien Felix Henry was born in 1850 in Provence, in the south of France. He arrived in Paris to study art in 1867 and was accepted into Gerome's studio at the Ecoles des Beaux Arts. His studies were disrupted by the Franco-Prussian War and the siege of Paris. He played a leading role in the popular movement to defend the Paris Commune in 1871 as Chef de la Legion, responsible for the defence of the 14th arrondissement. After their defeat, Henry, along with some 4000 other Communards, was incarcerated in the French penal colony of New Caledonia for seven years. In 1879 the Communards were given amnesty and Henry arrived in Sydney.
That year the International Exhibition was held in Sydney, ushering in a decade of prosperous growth for the colony. Henry successfully argued for state involvement in art education and by the end of the decade he had become a widely respected teacher and artist at Sydney Technical College. His Parisian art education had encouraged interdisciplinary work between the arts and industry which he sought to foster locally. Coinciding with the movement towards federation, Henry expressed a strong desire to see the development of an 'Australian Style'. Henry proposed to reinvigorate the classical language of decoration with stylised versions of Australian flora and fauna as 'motives for the decoration of any construction from a cottage to a public building'. His major project was to be a book entitled 'Australian Decorative Arts' for which he made some one hundred watercolour designs between 1889-91. In 1891 Henry returned to Paris to seek a publisher. The accompanying text, however, remained largely unwritten and the severe economic depression of the 1890s made publication of such a lavish work impossible. Henry died in 1896 before the book could be published.
The watercolour designs from the unpublished book, of which this is one, were given to the Museum in 1911 by Elizabeth Catherine Sea. These designs reflect Henry's intense interest in the use of native motifs, and in particular explore what Henry argued was the artistic potential of the waratah. Henry wrote that the waratah's 'rigid lines offer themselves ready for use for constructive ornamentation...it carries qualities of style and a firmness such as very few flowers, if any, could give so abundantly.'
The illustrations were championed at the time of acquisition by the Museum's director, R T Baker, who shared Henry's interest in the potential of Australian imagery to define a distinctively Australian school of decorative art. Baker described Henry as 'an artist possessing real genius, and his originality in design and other fields of fine and Applied Art will live long in the annals of New South Wales technical education'. However, the illustrations were subsequently overlooked for half a century until they were rediscovered in a storeroom in 1977.
Henry relished the possibility of transforming native flora and fauna into decorative forms. As an instructor in art at Sydney Technical College, he championed their use in the decorative arts, design and architecture. His own work draws on the shapes and forms of Australian native plants as the basis of his designs. This set of illustrations exemplifies Henry's innovative use of Australian motifs.