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
s.hen members of the Royal

Horticulrural Society's Orchid
Comrnittee gathered in the Drill Hali at StJames, \Westminster, for their meeting on 12 Jantary 1897. Harry
Ve itch, who many regarded as the

most outstanding horticulrurist of the time, was the chairman. Sir Trevor Lawrence, RHS president! was a vrce chairman. Frederick Sancler, owncr ofone ofthe largest, ifnot the largest,
32

orchid nurseries ofthe day and knolvn as the Orchid King, was one of the committee's .11 members. Individually and collectively, they represented the learned old guard ofthe orchid world. Joining them for the firsr rimc was NelhRoberts, avoungpainter, urknown and unheralded in the artistic or orchid communities. Aged just 2,1, Nelly
attended the meeting
as

the committee's

first artist. She had been hired for a probationary period of six months to

paint orchids granted an Award of Merit or a First Class Certificate. As she watched, the committee granted Awards of Merit to Lzel ia Lucy Ingram (C att Iq, a Lucy I ngr arn), M o rn o da b a dia ' Lute:rm', P ap b i op e di h m Leb attdyanu n.r and Paph iopedi lum Llliarr Greenwood. As Nelly left the Drill Hall to take the llowers home to produce the paintings, neither she nor the other members of the committee could have imagined that she would servc
March 2009

OithidReview

x

Rhy n c hol a eli o c af f leyd Ambersolis.

FCC/RHS, 19 0ctober 1926

the RHS orchid arrist for 56 years. she would produce 4,500 to 5,000 paintings of awarded orchids (plus countless more on private comrnission), be awarded the RHS Gold Medal and Silver Veitch MemorialMedal, have the satinpink C att Iey a N ellrc Ftob erts and O dont o glosnm Opheron'Nellie Roberrs' named for her, and have avolume of The Orcbid Rwieu dedicated to her. This year, 29 March marks the
as

During that time

50th anniversary ofthe death ofthis remarkable woman. Because of her
fascination with orchids and work for the Royal Horticultural Society, she avoided the fate of so many other female Victorian artists who laboured in obscuriry, many never receiving recognition for their effons, no matter how talented they might have been. Even so andwith more than halfa century ofservice and an extensive body ofofficial and private

paintings, she remains one of the importaat but under-chronicled figures in orchid history.

Familylife
Nelly Roberts was bom on 15 October 1872,the fust of four children of Ifilliam and Rebecca Roberts. Her father, a jeweller, was from Hempnall, Norfolk, and operated a clock, watch and repair shop at 72 Loughborough Road in Brixton, then in Surrey and
33

March 2009

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

34

I-

Oithid Review
now in the London borough

of
can seem to 4gree on how to spell the name of the fust artist of the Royal Honicultural Sociery Orchid Committee. It's Nelly on her binh cenificate. It's Nellv on her baotismal record. And it's Ne[y on her death certificate. But, at some point Nelly Roberts apparently became Nellie. In 1952, for example,Odontoglosun Opheron 'Nellie Robens', raised by S Thalp (a member of the Orchid Committee at the time), gained an Award ofMerit;in 1953, Black Flory regSstered, CanleyaNellie Roberts and The Orchid Reaietp dedicated its 59th volume to Nellie Roberts. She's often Nellie in orchid literarure or botanical references, including: the Diaionary of Brhish and lrish Botanists and Hort i cu lnrias by RD esmond; theJ ou,na I of tbe Royal Honialaml Sociery; Orchids

Lambeth. Her mother, born Rebecca \7ilson, was from Caittescamp, Cambridge .t" Thev listerl their daughter's name as Nellv on her birth certifi cate.( l) Christmas was special for the Roberts that year. They baptisecl their claughter on 22 December in the parish of St John's Brixton - nou StJohn the Evangelist, Ar-rge ll Torur - and gave herthe Christian name of Nelly.(3) By the time oithe l88l census, Nellyhad three siblings - Edith, five; Roger, one; ancl Svclner., three months. Another bor'. .\lbert McCara, 12, r.r'ho ri'rrs born in Drury Lane, near Covent (iarclcn, lived with them in the hor.ne above the clock, watch ancl repair shop.(+)

No one

bvMark Griffiths:the KHS Auarded
6 rcb i ds CD -ROM 2003; Th e Story

oftbe Royal Horticultural Society I 8 04-19 68,by HR Fletcher; Tbe Orchid Artists of the Royal

H o rt i c u ltur a I S o c i ety,
'Sf

an uticle by

t

ilma Rittersh awen in Tb e Orc b i d Reaieu, Vol. 95, No. ll23 (May, 1987. But she's Nellv in: The Art of Botanical -W I IIu s tr at i o n, by lfred Bfunti O ut lV ut, Grouing Cynbidiun Orchid: and Otber Flowers, The Story of el Rancbo Rinconanada,by Louis M Boyle; and in her obituary nThe Orchid Reaieu,Y ol. 67,N o. 7 9l (May, 19 59).
Even 2lst centuryinternet search engines cannot find records that have been lost to time or information that
was never recorded, so perhaps we

will never know how Nelly became
Nellie

- or 4gree which to use.

Opportunity knocks
Like manv u onren irr Vic(orian England. NelI rook up painting. She became intcrestccl in orchidswhen
she was 17 ancl sarv a r-:rse

oiorchids

in a south Lonclon florist shop.(5)The encounter left her bervitched. There is no record that sl-re received formal art training. She apparentlv sharpened her artistic skills bv cloin-q what manv botanical artists do - sruclv the work of other artists and e mulate their sryle. Nelly based heru'ork on that of JL Macfarlane (1838 c1913), who

window-shopped as he walked along Loughborough Road. He might have paused at the collar dresser Emma Armstrong's at no. 60 or the bootmaker Fred Williams' at no. 62. Possibly ChadJ Peploe's greengrocery at no.64 caught his eye, or maybe he found Thomas King's wardrobe shop
at nos. 66,68 and 70 interesting.(t But what he saw at \trilliam Roberts' shop at no. 72 must have stopped him in his tracks. Measures recognised
Cypripedium (Paphiopedilum) Moira 'Zenobia',

9

that the flowers in the paintings
in the window were similar to the ones his fathergrew. After staring at Nelly's paintings, it is easy to imagine him hurrying home to tell his

registered by
Hassell.1916

ofportriving orchids that would become the standard fbr
pioneered the style

botanical artists: a fronta.l view ofthe flor.l'er. at narural size, and sometimes with a tinted background for emphasis, especially ifparts of the flowerwere whiteio At her fhther's urghg, Nellv displayed her paintings in his shop's street-front window. The business was on a route that the son of Richard Isaac Measures
of Cambridge Lodge on Flodden Road in Camberwell was taking home one day in 1896. This section of Brirton
was home to

fitherwhat he had discovered.

His father, Richard Isaac Measures,
18 greenhouses of flowers. Among his favourites were orchids, especially

Committee, which had been formed on March 26. 1889. and he knerv the committee was seeking an an ist to pai nt

had

cr.oripediums and masdevallias. His
collection was considered representat ive

ofthe known

species at the end ofthe 19th cenrury, and his plants were often shown at RHS meetings. Measures'

ofMerit or First Certifi cates.(8) Measures' brother, Roben H, also gew orchids, and owned the extensive collection at The Woodlands, Streatham. Both brothers were fellows of the RHS from 1894 to 1897.
flowers granted Awards
Class

variery of small shops, merchants and theatre and music hall
a

gardener, HJ Chapman, was one of the most able orchidgrowers and hytridisers in England. Significantly, in 1894 he became
a

The Comrnitteets needs
Up to this point, the RHS Orchid Comrnittee had no means of recording
images of the flowers

artists. The younger Measures likely
March 2009

member of the RHS Orchid

it awarded.

With e
35

ORCHID ART

a =

L

orchid growing becoming increasingly popular and the number ofhybrids rising rapidly, the members realised they needed a permanent visual record of awards by which lirture entries could be judged. They also wanted to avoid giving duplicate awards to
plants they had already considered.

x 0dontioda Saxa'Sutherlands'
AM/RHS, 25 February 1941

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
that would include details and probable cost. The Committee duly submitted a proposal and the Council formally approved the request at the Annual

lleeting on 9 February 1897, 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.
General
a

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-

Still in great
demand at 81. but needing to
f

English language, Nelly probably never expected her paintings to receive any recognition. It must have come
as

quite

a

surprise, then, when

the visitors asked her to paint orchids the senior Measures grew. ChaPman

f

while painting, Nll\ NellY finallY

Pa phi o pe d i lu m ve n u st u m

'Measuresianum' AM/RHS,
12 December 1893

then brought these paintings to the attention oithe Orchid Committee. Nelly had painted orchids for Sir Trevor Lawrence before becoming the Committee's artist. Macfarlane and another well-known orchid artist, JohnNugent Fitch, nephewof the prominent botanical illustrator Walter Hood Fitch. also painted
March 2009

OfthidReview
orchids for Sir Trer.or, but there is no record that Nellv met either of them. There is also no record ofwhether Nellv pa-rnted fbr Sir Trevor before or afte r she painted fbr Measures at Cambridge Lodge. It is difficult not to wonder rvhat role Sir Trevor, the RHS president a:rd Orchid Committee vice-chairman, might have played in the Committee's decision to hire Nelly.
as well as ones result ofadvertrsments she placed in Tbe Orchid ReaieTD or requests she received from some of the most prominent orchid growers in England. One suchgrowerwas SirJeremiah Colman, who became vice-chairman of the Orchid Committee in 1909 and chairman inl9l4.ln1928, Nellywas awarded a silver medal for watercolour paintings oforchids in his collection that she displayed at the Roval Counties Agricultural Society Show in Gatton Park, Reigate. The exhibit was of scientific interest because ofthe way Nelly arranged her work - paintings

owners of award plants
as a

painted

I

I71n

Poate, East Suney FamilyHistory

Society, personal email, 8Jun, 2000

2 General Register Office,

England,

birth certificate for Nelly Roberts

3 Baptisms solemnised in the Parish
ofStJohn, Brirton, in the County of Surrey in the year 1872173. &amberh, Surrey, 1872) Entry no. 1827, page 229

4 ITyr

Poate, East Surrey Family History
(2

Society, personal email, 8Jun 2000

5 Griffiths, M
SaczetT.

002) Orchid::

A paid post is agreed
Regardless ofwhether Measures or Lawrence was the greater influence,

fron

the Archives of tbe Roual

Horticultural

the Committee decided in the waning months of 1896 to commission her on a six-month trial basis beginningwith its l2January 1897 meeting. Keeping their promise to pay a percentage ofthe expense for an artist, in the beginning the committee members contributed more than a thfud ofNelly's salary, a total of S37 lls the fust year, and s38 8s the second year.(e) It is unclear from the information avai-lable whether this was Nelly Roberts' annual salary or just the portion paid bymembers of the Committee. It did not take Nelly long to convince the members that they had found their artist, and they hired her firll time. The members found her award paintings useful on many occasions. and they are still used in Orchid

Scriptum, London (r Kramer,J ftonicultural consultant). Letter to the author. 6 Aug 2000 7 Street Directory, Brixton and Clapham. Lambeth fuchives 'Watson, 8 W & Bean, S( (1890)
Orchids, Their Cuhure and Mawgement. Revised byHJ Chapman (1903).

of species were on one side and images ofhybrids that had been raised from

themwere on the other.(lo) Nelly, at least occasionally, also painted flowers other than orchids. In1922 the Orchid Committee's programme for painting awarded flowers was extended to all awardwinning plants. That year Nelly painted at least two non-orchid awards
(Primula malac o ides'P rtncess
and,

9 Hermans,C&Hermans,J
(2003) The life and times of the Royal

Horticultural Sociery Orchid Committee. In Hermans,J & Cribb, P (eds) Proceedings of the htrEean Orcbid Conference and Shozr. EOC. London 10 Th e Orch id Revieu,Jul 1928,

Vol.36 No. 421:193
1l Boyle, L (1952) Out lY/ut, Growing Cynbidiun Orchids and other Flouers.
The Story ofEl Ranchero Rinconada:169.

Marf

Gladiohr'Perfect Peace) granted bythe RHS Floral Committee. Borh are signed in her characteristic style, with the initials NR, and are in the Wisley Herbarium collection.

Times-Mirror Press, Los Angeles 12 Black, PM (1979 Beautifiil Orchift Ham.lyn, London
13 The Orchid Reviea,Jarruary,

.

1977:20 0rol.

85

Committee meetings today.

The person behind tJre paintings
Nelly apparently lived at the house

14 Journal ofthe Royal Soc i e4,, 19 54t 163 N ol.

No. 1003) Horticuhural
7

9)

15

\7ilma Rittershausen, former

Recognition for her paintings
At a Comrnittee meeting on 3lJuly
1900, chaired by Veitch and attended bv 12 members, all4l5 of her award

atT2Lotglborough Road for her
entire life. She painted flowers for the Committee in a small, neat but cold room. In the only known photograph

editor, Tbe Orc bid Rea ieu, letterc to the author, 13 March 2001, and
15 September

2000

paintings to date were spread out for nrembers to inspect. In appreciation oiher faithfulness to botanica.l
rccuracv and the excellence

ofher, she is wearing
a

glasses and cardigan and sitting at her artist's table as she paints a Caxleya rlliance

ofher

peintings, the Council, acting on the reconmendation of the Committee, .rg ucled Nellv the RHS Gold Medal. .\ll oi \elh's award paintings are :n rhc RHS archir es. Other paintings r, rnrerime s come onto the market. Trese are clupLcates she painted for
l{arch 2009

flower in the manner attributed to Macfarlane.(ll) Brian Rittershausen, who met Nelly a few times near the end ofher careerwhen he was young, remembers her as beingvery shy and retiring. He recalled that the Orchid Committee in those days was very much male-dominated.

Margaret Stevens, president, Society of Botanical Artists, personal emal,,27 Sep2007 17 Celia Smith, Supervisor of london Sorough ot Lambeth Projects Borough ofLambeth yrolects and Memorials, personal email, 26 Sep 2007

l6

UISg

ROBERTS.
Orcttdl Artlct lo tbe Royal Hortlcdtsral gslcty.

Awaldcd ih. Soci.tyr cold N.dd,

Jrly, !N,

-

72 Loughborough ld.. Brlrro4 LoEdo!, E.tf.
Above Nelly Roberts' advertisement in the
February 1925 issue of The )rchid Review

37

ORCHID ART

Orchid accolades
volume 59 of The Orchid Reviezuwas dedicated to Nelly for her years ofdevotion and for her body of work. By this time, she preferred to spend onJy part of her time painting for the Committee, but had so many commissions on hand that she could not do this. She even thought of retiring, but kept working for the Committee because apparently there was no one to take over her work. ln recognition ofher service. Odontoglosnm Opheron'Nellie Robens' was raised by S Tharp (a member of the Orchid Committee at the time) and named for her. It gained an Award of Merit on 18 November 1952. In 1953, with her years ofservice obviously nearing an end, Peter McKenzie Black of Black & Flory Ltd, registered Canlq/a Nellie Robens (C. Bow Beils x C. douiana) to honour her. It was painted by \Winifred Price (in the sryle of Nelly), but when she was presented with the painting she said thank you and then remarked that she'would have preferred to have painted it herself!'(r2)
1951,

She was 86. She was 3

buried on

In

April

1959 in Lambeth Cemetery

on Blackshaw Road in Tooting,

London, in Grave No. 262D3 - a public, or unpurchasecl, grave. Because public graves, in which as many as 20 people may be interred, are less costly than individual graves, it was not uncommon for families to avail themselves of this option.(lD It was not possible, because ofthe nature ofa public grave, to erect a stone bearing Nelly's name. Perhaps that is fitting. She rests now as she lii ecl her life - respected and admired fbr her dedication and contributions to illustrating an important chapter in the historv of orchids. And in obscurigv. +
General

\
lycasfe Balliae, AM/RHS, 23 May 1900, exhibited by Charlesworth and Co, at the Temple Show

THoMAS ALLEN ODER is a past president of the Atlanta Orchid
Society and
ac

o-editor of Pbalaenopsis,

appointed as her tempora-ry successor. Interestingly, after 56 years of service, the Committee's first artisr, 'who appears to us to be a fascinating lady, would have been a mere
employee in those days,'said

the journal ofthe International Phalaenopsis Alliance. He and his wife. Susan. own and run Orchids and More. Email: T0M0DER@comcast.net

ffi

Some paintings in the RHS Orchid

Wilma

Nellyretires
The same year and still in great demand at 81, but suffering from attacks of rheumatoid arthritis and chilblains that caused her to wear mittens while painting, Nelly 6na11y retired.(rl) The president of the RHS, the Hon. David Bowes-Lyon, announced her resignation at the February 16, 1954 Annual General Meeting. He praised Nelly for her five-plus decades ofservice and said he believed that she had'painted every single orchid receiving an award during that period.'(rl) He then presented her with the Veitch Silver Medal and a cheque for 25 guineas. The financial gift was the result of donations by all of the members of the Orchid Committee. He also announced that Ann V tJTebster from Kew had been
38

Rittershausen, a former editor of The Orcbid Revres;. 'Remember, after
all her years ofdevotion she was only given
a Silver Veitch Medal! She was not considered worth a Gold.'(rs)

Nelly's legacy
By some standards, perhaps Nelly did well carving the niche that she did.
'So manywomen dabbled in this

Committee archives are fbr awards granted befbre 1897 and some ofthese are attributed to Nellv Roberts. These paintings are the result ofan effort to lill gaps in the award historv of the committee and, as Brent Elliott writes in his historv of the RHS, are'of such pre-1897 award winners as could readilv be found fbr her.'

field

during the

19

th

rc

and eaiy 20th cenrury

and many just laded into obscuriry and, really, only a connection with

Kew - like Marianne North - or the RHS saved them from obscuriry,' said Margaret Stevens, president of the Sociery of Botanical Artists.( r6)

Nellywas sharing her house with
her sister, Edith, when she died on Easter Sunday,29 Marchl959 at
St Giles

Hospital in Camberwell.

The authorwould like to thank: the late Mary McQuerrv; Paul and Mary Phillips;Jack Kramer; Brian and \7i1ma Rittershausen; Richard Sanford; Brent Elliott; and Isobvlla Croix. Also: Nlartin Clark, lbrmervicar of StJohn the Evangelistl Margarct Stelens ot the Society ofBotanical Artists; and in oarticular. Gabrielle Bourn at the Lambeth Archives, and Celia Smith of Lambeth and Streatham cemeteries and crematoria.

March 2009

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