Vera was always keen to pursue a career in horticulture but this was not considered to be a suitable occupation for a lady during those times. Initially she studied art at both the Leeds College of Art and the St Albans College of Art and worked as a model to raise funds to purchase a farm, however, when her grandfather saw the level of her determination to be a farmer he provided her with the finances to develop a piggery and market garden of her own.
Vera moved to Australia in 1947 and after a short stint in Victoria moved north and commenced farming near Bundaberg. Initially she grew vegetables and tobacco but soon changed to sugar cane, being only the second woman to obtain a sugar assignment. Vera was no slouch when it came to being involved in the hard work of farming and had a fund of lively tales of her life as a cane farmer.
During her farming career Vera continued an interest in botany and was continuously painting and sketching Australian flowers, as well as working on establishing a garden of wild flowers and other plants behind her house. Vera's plants were always rescued only from areas about to be ravaged by bulldozers and tractors. She never took plants from where they were safe.
In 1972, at the age of 60 Vera settled in Cooktown. Enraptured by the beauty of the Endeavour River area, and anxious to do all .she could to help it stay untouched and undamaged she commenced a project to paint 200 specimens of Endeavour River flora. Her hope was that when people saw the wonderful it was they would be moved to do all they could to protect it. With two friends of the Guugu-Yimithirr tribe, she made extensive trips along the upper reaches of the river locating each species and recording the Aboriginal names and uses of each plant.
In 1989 Vera donated 140 of her botanical illustrations to the people of Cooktown, and the Vera Scarth-Johnson Foundation was launched on World Environment Day June 3rd 1989 with the aim of creating a gallery where her works could be put on permanent display. Through the hard work of the foundation the establishment of an interpretive centre and art gallery in the Botanic Gardens was made possible. The centre will feature educational and interpretive information on the Wet Tropics and Great Barrier Reef as well as a permanent display of Vera's paintings.
Vera's wish was that the Interpretive Centre would educate both current and future generations about the wonders and the importance of the environment and the need to protect the few remaining pristine parts of the planet. In 1998, when then Premier of Queensland Rob Borbidge visited Cooktown to mark the commencement of the project, Vera said "It's not often in a lifetime that you see a dream come true, but I have and it is wonderful."
Vera was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia in the Queen's Birthday Honours list in June 1996. The award was given in the general division for services to art as a watercolour artist, specialising in the native flora of Cooktown and the Endeavour River area.
Vera's friends will miss her for her lively wit, her sense of humour and her uncompromising honesty. Vera would call a spade a spade and was well known for her enjoyment of a "glass of red and a good argument."
While no one could presume to speak for Vera, it is not hard to imagine that she will be looking over our shoulders checking that we conscientiously and continually take care of "her" river and surrounding environment. And perhaps that would be a fitting memorial for such a very special woman.
She died on 19 May 1999.
A memorial was held for Vera in the Botanic Gardens, Cooktown at 3.00pm on Saturday 22nd May.
Extracted from the Cooktown Local News, Issue No.200, 20 May, 1999