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Most people would know naturalist Joy Adamson through her book, Born Free, about her life with Elsa the lion cub in Kenya, Africa. Joy Adamson spent about 40 years on game reserves in Kenya, but she had another passion – plants. 

Born Friederike Victoria Gessner (1910-1980) in Austria, she moved to Kenya in 1935, the year she married Victor von Klarwill. However, she met botanist, Peter Bally, on the ship to Africa, and married him in 1938. It was Bally who nicknamed her Joy. During her travels throughout Kenya, with Bally, Adamson began to paint botanical images of flora – wild flowers.

But she met George Adamson, a game warden, and married him in 1943. In 1956, George and Joy Adamson rescued a female lion cub they called Elsa, which they raised on their reserve. Elsa the lioness inspired three books by Joy Adamson: Born Free (1960), Living Free (1961), and Forever Free (1962). Elsa died in 1961 and is buried in the Meru Game Reserve in Kenya. All three books were made into films – Born Free in 1966. Joy was killed in 1980 (her ashes buried next to Elsa’s) and George too was killed in 1989.

Joy’s botanical paintings of plants, accurately drawn, are on display at the Nairobi National Museum. She painted over 300 flowers and 600 ethnic portraits of traditional Kenyans. The Colonial Government of Kenya commissioned her to paint portraits of 22 tribes in Kenya to preserve their heritage. All of these belong to the Nairobi National Museum. When the museum was undergoing renovations in the late 1990s, they put her collection in storage. On 19 May, 2014, they launched the return of the paintings at the Joy Adamson Exhibition in the museum’s Hall of Kenya. 

At the launch exhibition, the museum showed 51 of her watercolour paintings, with information of her work as a naturalist, author, and illustrator.

Photographer: Martina Nicolls






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