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ORCHID ART

NellyRoberts
Trrouas ArrEN OoEn recounts the life story of the first and longest
serving RHS orchid artist on the 50th anniversary of her death

T,IAGINETHE CONTRAST orchid nurseries ofthe day and knolvn paint orchids granted an Award of
s.hen members of the Royal as the Orchid King, was one of the Merit or a First Class Certificate. As
Horticulrural Society's Orchid committee's .11 members. Individually she watched, the committee granted
Comrnittee gathered in the Drill Hali and collectively, they represented the Awards of Merit to Lzel ia Lucy Ingram
at StJames, \Westminster, for their learned old guard ofthe orchid world. (C att Iq, a Lucy I ngr arn), M o rn o da b a dia
meeting on 12 Jantary 1897. Harry Joining them for the firsr rimc was ' Lute:rm', P ap b i op e di h m Leb attdyanu n.r

Ve itch, who many regarded as the NelhRoberts, avoungpainter, urknown and Paph iopedi lum Llliarr Greenwood.
most outstanding horticulrurist of and unheralded in the artistic or orchid As Nelly left the Drill Hall to take the
the time, was the chairman. Sir Trevor communities. Aged just 2,1, Nelly llowers home to produce the
Lawrence, RHS president! was a vrce attended the meeting as the committee's paintings, neither she nor the other
chairman. Frederick Sancler, owncr first artist. She had been hired for a members of the committee could
ofone ofthe largest, ifnot the largest, probationary period of six months to have imagined that she would servc

32 March 2009
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x Rhy n c hol a eli o c af f leyd Ambersolis.


FCC/RHS, 19 0ctober 1926

as the RHS orchid arrist for 56 years. 50th anniversary ofthe death ofthis paintings, she remains one of the
During that time she would produce remarkable woman. Because of her importaat but under-chronicled
4,500 to 5,000 paintings of awarded fascination with orchids and work figures in orchid history.
orchids (plus countless more on for the Royal Horticultural Society,
private comrnission), be awarded the she avoided the fate of so many other Familylife
RHS Gold Medal and Silver Veitch female Victorian artists who laboured Nelly Roberts was bom on 15 October
MemorialMedal, have the satinpink in obscuriry, many never receiving 1872,the fust of four children of
C att Iey a N ellrc Ftob erts and O dont o - recognition for their effons, no Ifilliam and Rebecca Roberts. Her
glosnm Opheron'Nellie Roberrs' matter how talented they might father, a jeweller, was from Hempnall,
named for her, and have avolume of have been. Even so andwith more Norfolk, and operated a clock, watch
The Orcbid Rwieu dedicated to her. than halfa century ofservice and an and repair shop at 72 Loughborough
This year, 29 March marks the extensive body ofofficial and private Road in Brixton, then in Surrey and

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ORCHID ART

Above: x Pf yncf o laeliocattleya Amber


FCC/RH5, 21 September, 1920

lelt:, 0dontoglossum Opheron'Nellie


Roberts' AM/RHS. tB November 1952

Righl:, Cynbidiun Galaxy'Sutherlands'


AM/RHS, t4 April 1942

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Oithid Review

now in the London borough of


Lambeth. Her mother, born Rebecca
No one can seem to 4gree on how to spell bvMark Griffiths:the KHS Auarded
\7ilson, was from Caittescamp, the name of the fust artist of the Royal 6 rcb i ds CD -ROM 2003; Th e Story
Cambridge .t" Thev listerl their Honicultural Sociery Orchid Committee. oftbe Royal Horticultural Society
daughter's name as Nellv on her It's Nelly on her binh cenificate. I 8 04-19 68,by HR Fletcher;
birth certifi cate.( l) Christmas was It's Nellv on her baotismal record. Tbe Orchid Artists of the Royal
special for the Roberts that year. And it's Ne[y on her death certificate. H o rt i c u ltur a I S o c i ety, an uticle by
'Sf
But, at some point Nelly Roberts ilma Rittersh awen in Tb e Orc b i d
They baptisecl their claughter on
apparently became Nellie. Reaieu, Vol. 95, No. ll23 (May, 1987.
22 December in the parish of St
In 1952, for example,Odontoglosun But she's Nellv in: The Art of Botanical
John's Brixton - nou StJohn the Opheron 'Nellie Robens', raised by
-W
I IIu s tr at i o n, by lfred Bfunti O ut lV ut,
Evangelist, Ar-rge ll Torur - and gave S Thalp (a member of the Orchid Grouing Cynbidiun Orchid: and Otber
herthe Christian name of Nelly.(3) Committee at the time), gained an Flowers, The Story of el Rancbo
By the time oithe l88l census, t
Award ofMerit;in 1953, Black Flory Rinconanada,by Louis M Boyle;
Nellyhad three siblings - Edith, regSstered, CanleyaNellie Roberts and and in her obituary nThe Orchid
five; Roger, one; ancl Svclner., three The Orchid Reaietp dedicated its 59th Reaieu,Y ol. 67,N o. 7 9l (May, 19 59).
volume to Nellie Roberts. Even 2lst centuryinternet search
months. Another bor'. .\lbert
She's often Nellie in orchid literarure engines cannot find records that have
McCara, 12, r.r'ho ri'rrs born in Drury
or botanical references, including: the been lost to time or information that
Lane, near Covent (iarclcn, lived Diaionary of Brhish and lrish Botanists and was never recorded, so perhaps we
with them in the hor.ne above the Hort i cu lnrias by RD esmond; theJ ou,na I will never know how Nelly became
clock, watch ancl repair shop.(+) of tbe Royal Honialaml Sociery; Orchids Nellie - or 4gree which to use.

Opportunity knocks window-shopped as he walked along


Like manv u onren irr Vic(orian Loughborough Road. He might have
England. NelI rook up painting. paused at the collar dresser Emma
She became intcrestccl in orchidswhen Armstrong's at no. 60 or the boot-
9
she was 17 ancl sarv a r-:rse oiorchids maker Fred Williams' at no. 62.
in a south Lonclon florist shop.(5)The Possibly ChadJ Peploe's greengrocery
encounter left her bervitched. There at no.64 caught his eye, or maybe he
is no record that sl-re received formal found Thomas King's wardrobe shop
art training. She apparentlv sharpened at nos. 66,68 and 70 interesting.(t
her artistic skills bv cloin-q what manv But what he saw at \trilliam Roberts'
botanical artists do - sruclv the work of shop at no. 72 must have stopped him
Cypripedium
other artists and e mulate their sryle. in his tracks. Measures recognised (Paphiopedilum)
Nelly based heru'ork on that of that the flowers in the paintings Moira 'Zenobia',
JL Macfarlane (1838 c1913), who in the window were similar to the registered by
ofportriving orchids
pioneered the style ones his fathergrew. After staring Hassell.1916

that would become the standard fbr at Nelly's paintings, it is easy to


botanical artists: a fronta.l view ofthe imagine him hurrying home to tell Committee, which had been formed
flor.l'er. at narural size, and sometimes his fitherwhat he had discovered. on March 26. 1889. and he knerv the
with a tinted background for emphasis, His father, Richard Isaac Measures, committee was seeking an an ist to pai nt
especially ifparts of the flowerwere whiteio had 18 greenhouses of flowers. Among flowers granted Awards ofMerit or First
At her fhther's urghg, Nellv displayed his favourites were orchids, especially Class Certifi cates.(8) Measures' brother,
her paintings in his shop's street-front cr.oripediums and masdevallias. His Roben H, also gew orchids, and owned
window. The business was on a route collection was considered representat ive the extensive collection at The Wood-
that the son of Richard Isaac Measures ofthe known species at the end ofthe lands, Streatham. Both brothers were
of Cambridge Lodge on Flodden Road 19th cenrury, and his plants were often fellows of the RHS from 1894 to 1897.
in Camberwell was taking home one shown at RHS meetings. Measures'
day in 1896. This section of Brirton gardener, HJ Chapman, was one of the The Comrnitteets needs
was home to variery of small shops,
a most able orchidgrowers and hytridisers Up to this point, the RHS Orchid
merchants and theatre and music hall in England. Significantly, in 1894 he Comrnittee had no means of recording
artists. The younger Measures likely became a member of the RHS Orchid images of the flowers it awarded. With e
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ORCHID ART

orchid growing becoming increasingly


a
popular and the number ofhybrids
rising rapidly, the members realised
=
they needed a permanent visual record
of awards by which lirture entries
L
could be judged. They also wanted
to avoid giving duplicate awards to
plants they had already considered.
In 1896, according to the Council
Report for 189G97, the Orchid
Committee approached the Council,
the governing body of the RHS, about
hiring an artist. The Councilwas in
f-avour and asked for a formal proposal
x 0dontioda Saxa'Sutherlands'
AM/RHS, 25 February 1941 that would include details and probable
cost. The Committee duly submitted
a proposal and the Council formally
approved the request at the Annual
General lleeting on 9 February 1897,
a rnonth arrer .t.telly began painting
for the committee. Thev added a
stipulation - a percentage of the salary
for the artist must be paid bv the
members ot rhe Orchid Committee.
Members who had the committee's
work at heart voluntarily agreed.

Nelly's previous experience


Villiam Roberts must have been
surprised when strangers with
connections to the Royal Horticultural
Sociery asked about the paintings in
his shopwindow. Like otherwomen
in Victorian England who were
expected to take up watercolouring,
piano playing and at least one non-
English language, Nelly probably
Still in great never expected her paintings to
receive any recognition. It must have
demand at 81. come as quite a surprise, then, when
but needing to the visitors asked her to paint orchids
the senior Measures grew. ChaPman
then brought these paintings to the
f attention oithe Orchid Committee.
f
while painting, Nelly had painted orchids for Sir

Nll\ NellY finallY Trevor Lawrence before becoming


the Committee's artist. Macfarlane
and another well-known orchid artist,
Pa phi o pe d i lu m ve n u st u m JohnNugent Fitch, nephewof the
'Measuresianum' AM/RHS, prominent botanical illustrator
12 December 1893
Walter Hood Fitch. also painted

March 2009
OfthidReview

orchids for Sir Trer.or, but there is no owners of award plants as well as ones

record that Nellv met either of them. painted as aresult ofadvertrsments I I71n Poate, East Suney FamilyHistory
There is also no record ofwhether she placed in Tbe Orchid ReaieTD or Society, personal email, 8Jun, 2000
Nellv pa-rnted fbr Sir Trevor before requests she received from some of 2 General Register Office, England,
or afte r she painted fbr Measures at the most prominent orchid growers birth certificate for Nelly Roberts
Cambridge Lodge. It is difficult not in England. One suchgrowerwas 3 Baptisms solemnised in the Parish
ofStJohn, Brirton, in the County of
to wonder rvhat role Sir Trevor, the SirJeremiah Colman, who became
Surrey in the year 1872173. &amberh,
RHS president a:rd Orchid Committee vice-chairman of the Orchid
Surrey, 1872) Entry no. 1827, page 229
vice-chairman, might have played in Committee in 1909 and chairman 4 ITyr Poate, East Surrey Family History
the Committee's decision to hire Nelly. inl9l4.ln1928, Nellywas awarded a Society, personal email, 8Jun 2000
silver medal for watercolour paintings 5 Griffiths, M (2 002) Orchid:: fron
A paid post is agreed oforchids in his collection that she the Archives of tbe Roual Horticultural
Regardless ofwhether Measures or displayed at the Roval Counties SaczetT.Scriptum, London
(r Kramer,J ftonicultural consultant).
Lawrence was the greater influence, Agricultural Society Show in Gatton
Letter to the author. 6 Aug 2000
the Committee decided in the waning Park, Reigate. The exhibit was of
7 Street Directory, Brixton and
months of 1896 to commission her on scientific interest because ofthe way Clapham. Lambeth fuchives
a six-month trial basis beginningwith Nelly arranged her work - paintings 'Watson,
8 W & Bean, S( (1890)
its l2January 1897 meeting. Keeping of species were on one side and images Orchids, Their Cuhure and Mawgement.
their promise to pay a percentage ofhybrids that had been raised from Revised byHJ Chapman (1903).
ofthe expense for an artist, in the themwere on the other.(lo) 9 Hermans,C&Hermans,J
(2003) The life and times of the Royal
beginning the committee members Nelly, at least occasionally, also
contributed more than a thfud ofNelly's Horticultural Sociery Orchid
painted flowers other than orchids.
Committee. In Hermans,J & Cribb, P
salary, a total of S37 lls the fust year, In1922 the Orchid Committee's (eds) Proceedings of the htrEean Orcbid
and s38 8s the second year.(e) It is programme for painting awarded Conference and Shozr. EOC. London
unclear from the information avai-lable flowers was extended to all award- 10 Th e Orch id Revieu,Jul 1928,
whether this was Nelly Roberts' winning plants. That year Nelly Vol.36 No. 421:193
annual salary or just the portion paid painted at least two non-orchid awards 1l Boyle, L (1952) Out lY/ut, Growing
bymembers of the Committee. It did (Primula malac o ides'P rtncess Marf Cynbidiun Orchids and other Flouers.
not take Nelly long to convince the The Story ofEl Ranchero Rinconada:169.
and, Gladiohr'Perfect Peace) granted
Times-Mirror Press, Los Angeles
members that they had found their bythe RHS Floral Committee. Borh
12 Black, PM (1979 Beautifiil Orchift .
artist, and they hired her firll time. are signed in her characteristic style,
Ham.lyn, London
The members found her award with the initials NR, and are in the 13 The Orchid Reviea,Jarruary,
paintings useful on many occasions. Wisley Herbarium collection. 1977:20 0rol. 85 No. 1003)
and they are still used in Orchid 14 Journal ofthe Royal Horticuhural
Committee meetings today. The person behind tJre paintings Soc i e4,, 19 54t 163 N ol. 7 9)
Nelly apparently lived at the house 15 \7ilma Rittershausen, former
Recognition for her paintings editor, Tbe Orc bid Rea ieu, letterc
atT2Lotglborough Road for her
to the author, 13 March 2001, and
At a Comrnittee meeting on 3lJuly entire life. She painted flowers for the
15 September 2000
1900, chaired by Veitch and attended Committee in a small, neat but cold l6 Margaret Stevens, president,
bv 12 members, all4l5 of her award room. In the only known photograph Society of Botanical Artists, personal
paintings to date were spread out for ofher, she is wearing glasses and emal,,27 Sep2007
nrembers to inspect. In appreciation a cardigan and sitting at her artist's 17 Celia Smith, Supervisor of london
oiher faithfulness to botanica.l table as she paints a Caxleya rlliance Sorough ot Lambeth yrolects
Borough ofLambeth Projects and
rccuracv and the excellence ofher flower in the manner attributed to Memorials, personal email, 26 Sep 2007

peintings, the Council, acting on the Macfarlane.(ll) Brian Rittershausen,


reconmendation of the Committee, who met Nelly a few times near the UISg ROBERTS.
Orcttdl Artlct lo tbe
.rg ucled Nellv the RHS Gold Medal. end ofher careerwhen he was young, Royal Hortlcdtsral gslcty.
.\ll oi \elh's award paintings are remembers her as beingvery shy and Awaldcd ih. Soci.tyr cold N.dd,
-
Jrly, !N,
:n rhc RHS archir es. Other paintings retiring. He recalled that the Orchid 72 Loughborough ld.. Brlrro4 LoEdo!, E.tf.
r, rnrerime s come onto the market. Committee in those days was very Above Nelly Roberts' advertisement in the
Trese are clupLcates she painted for much male-dominated. February 1925 issue of The )rchid Review

l{arch 2009 37
ORCHID ART

Orchid accolades She was 86. She was buried on


In 1951,volume 59 of The Orchid 3 April 1959 in Lambeth Cemetery
Reviezuwas dedicated to Nelly for her on Blackshaw Road in Tooting,
years ofdevotion and for her body of London, in Grave No. 262D3
work. By this time, she preferred to General - a public, or unpurchasecl,
spend onJy part of her time painting grave. Because public graves, in which
for the Committee, but had so many as many as 20 people may be interred,
commissions on hand that she could are less costly than individual graves,
not do this. She even thought of it was not uncommon for families to
retiring, but kept working for the avail themselves of this option.(lD
Committee because apparently there It was not possible, because ofthe
was no one to take over her work. nature ofa public grave, to erect a
ln recognition ofher service. stone bearing Nelly's name. Perhaps
Odontoglosnm Opheron'Nellie Robens' that is fitting. She rests now as she
was raised by S Tharp (a member of lii ecl her life - respected and admired
the Orchid Committee at the time) fbr her dedication and contributions to
and named for her. It gained an Award illustrating an important chapter in the
of Merit on 18 November 1952. historv of orchids. And in obscurigv. +
In 1953, with her years ofservice
obviously nearing an end, Peter \ THoMAS ALLEN ODER is a past
lycasfe Balliae,
McKenzie Black of Black & Flory AM/RHS, 23 May 1900, president of the Atlanta Orchid
Ltd, registered Canlq/a Nellie Robens exhibited by Charlesworth Society and ac o-editor of Pbalaenopsis,
(C. Bow Beils x C. douiana) to honour and Co, at the Temple Show the journal ofthe International
her. It was painted by \Winifred Price Phalaenopsis Alliance. He and his
(in the sryle of Nelly), but when she appointed as her tempora-ry successor. wife. Susan. own and run Orchids and
was presented with the painting she Interestingly, after 56 years of More. Email: T0M0DER@comcast.net
said thank you and then remarked service, the Committee's first artisr,
that she'would have preferred to
have painted it herself!'(r2)
'who appears to us to be a fascinating
lady, would have been a mere
ffi Some paintings in the RHS Orchid
employee in those days,'said Wilma Committee archives are fbr awards
Nellyretires Rittershausen, a former editor of granted befbre 1897 and some ofthese
are attributed to Nellv Roberts. These
The same year and still in great The Orcbid Revres;. 'Remember, after
paintings are the result ofan effort to
demand at 81, but suffering from all her years ofdevotion she was only
lill gaps in the award historv of the
attacks of rheumatoid arthritis and given a Silver Veitch Medal! She was
committee and, as Brent Elliott writes
chilblains that caused her to wear not considered worth a Gold.'(rs) in his historv of the RHS, are'of such
mittens while painting, Nelly 6na11y pre-1897 award winners as could
retired.(rl) The president of the Nelly's legacy readilv be found fbr her.'
RHS, the Hon. David Bowes-Lyon, By some standards, perhaps Nelly
announced her resignation at the
February 16, 1954 Annual General
Meeting. He praised Nelly for her
did well carving the niche that she did.
'So manywomen dabbled in this
during the 19 th
field
and eaiy 20th cenrury
rc The authorwould like to thank: the
late Mary McQuerrv; Paul and Mary
five-plus decades ofservice and said and many just laded into obscuriry
Phillips;Jack Kramer; Brian and \7i1ma
he believed that she had'painted every and, really, only a connection with Rittershausen; Richard Sanford; Brent
single orchid receiving an award during Kew - like Marianne North - or Elliott; and Isobvlla Croix. Also:
that period.'(rl) He then presented the RHS saved them from obscuriry,' Nlartin Clark, lbrmervicar of StJohn
her with the Veitch Silver Medal and said Margaret Stevens, president of the Evangelistl Margarct Stelens ot
a cheque for 25 guineas. The financial the Sociery of Botanical Artists.( r6) the Society ofBotanical Artists; and
in oarticular. Gabrielle Bourn at the
gift was the result of donations by Nellywas sharing her house with
Lambeth Archives, and Celia Smith
all of the members of the Orchid her sister, Edith, when she died on
of Lambeth and Streatham
Committee. He also announced that Easter Sunday,29 Marchl959 at
cemeteries and crematoria.
Ann V tJTebster from Kew had been St Giles Hospital in Camberwell.

38 March 2009