‘Why no flowers for Nellie, orchid-painter extraordinaire?’ we asked in a previous post. In her 56 years as Royal Horticultural Society orchid artist Nellie Roberts captured an extraordinary amount of fugitive beauty. She worked in a room above the family shop in Loughborough Road, died, aged 86, in 1959, and rests in Grave No. 262 D3 at Lambeth Cemetery, Tooting. Yet there’s no headstone, no flowers, for Nellie because hers is an unmarked communal grave.
Since our article, however, there’s been an exhibition of Nellie’s work and moves to find and mark her grave. The flowers should follow. Meantime, Deborah Lambkin, a successor to Nellie at RHS, sketches in the perplexities and the pleasures of capturing the frail beauty of the orchid. Even in this age of superb colour photography, Deborah explains, the paintbrush remains indispensable to capturing the size, shape and colour of an orchid so it is comparable to the thousands of others recorded since 1897. You can view them, weekdays only, in the RHS’s Lindley Library in Vincent Square, Westminster.
I have held the position as Orchid Artist to the Royal Horticultural Society Orchid Committee since 2005. I am ninth in a line of artists who have held the position since 1897, with Nellie Roberts, the first and longest-serving member.
In the early 2000s, I was working as a botanical illustrator at Kew Gardens when I was invited by the RHS Orchid Committee to bring some of my paintings to one of the orchid meetings at Vincent Square in London. There were also a couple of other artists submitting their work. We each talked about our work briefly and our paintings were shown around.
While I had no particular interest in orchids at the time I was a botanical artist painting everything and anything at Kew and I was really interested in plants and gardening of all kinds.
My first meeting was at Chelsea in 2005 and my predecessor Cherry Ann Lavrih was very helpful in giving me a written account of how she tackled various orchids and her responsibilities at the meetings. The Orchid Committee members were also very helpful to make suggestions about how best to preserve and display orchids.
Much of what happens in the Orchid Committee meetings is unchanged since the time of Nellie Roberts (1897–1953). As still happens at every meeting, a person displays an orchid painting and the orchid to the Committee, who examine them carefully. The orchid is then judged and awarded if it is deemed good enough. One of the few differences is that no one wears hats any more.
The Orchid Committee meet approximately every month. The meetings are held at the RHS in Vincent Square and also at RHS shows and gardens around the country. Committee members are usually from academic institutions, orchid nurseries and orchid societies from all over the country. There are also members from all over the world who regularly correspond or attend and add their expertise.
The committee give several awards to plants, which I then paint: Award of Merit, for flower quality for hybrids mostly; Botanical Certificate, for species orchids that are deemed worthy of encouraging into cultivation. The top award is a First Class Certificate given for really outstanding flowers. I have only seen a handful of these in my 15 years as orchid artist.
Painting the orchids
Occasionally there are a large quantity of orchids awarded at the bigger meetings such as the International Orchid Show, or at one of the meetings at the Eric Young Orchid Foundation. In past times there was a second orchid artist to help out if necessary. I have usually found I can manage to do all the orchids myself.
Orchids are usually quite forgiving and some can last for ages in airtight containers in the fridge. The maximum number I have needed to paint from a meeting has been 14.
I start by doing a pencil line drawing using a clutch pencil with a H lead and dividers to measure back and forth, cross-checking carefully to ensure that my painting is the exact size of the actual flower. I also take perspective into consideration to make the orchid look natural.
I believe it is critical to paint from life. I continually refer to and compare my painting to the flower in magnified detail and aim to have the closest, if not the actual, colour match and scientific accuracy possible.
I then paint in layers in watercolour, starting with the paler colours and working in more paint in stronger colours and adding detail where I can see it. I start painting the parts of the flower that are the furthest away from me and work forward towards to front.
Getting the intensity of colour on yellow and orange orchids can be difficult without the colouring going too far and becoming mucky. I try keep the colours really bright, using mostly stronger oranges and yellows for shadows.
People sometimes assume that white flowers are the most difficult and they do have their challenges. With white and very pale flowers any mistake can be obvious and impossible to correct. I tend to use Winsor and Newton Neutral Tint for white flowers. It is a very ‘staining’ colour which means that once laid on the paper it stains it strongly and cannot be removed, so there is only one chance to get it right. If does go wrong the only thing to do is start again. Actually I don’t think any white flower is ever really just white, they are always white with a hint of cream, pink, yellow or green.
Traditionally with the RHS orchid painting, the artists, like Nellie Roberts, painted the background of the paper grey to make the white flowers stand out. I don’t do this, as I try to make the orchids, even the white ones, stand out naturally.
The difficulty with black orchids can be that they are so dark it’s difficult to see one part of the flower from another. I paint them as I can see them and then I cut them apart to show more of the flower parts.
The blueish pink of many orchids like Phalaenopsis can be difficult to reproduce. I use pure Brilliant Red Violet. I may add Cerulean blue or Winsor violet too. I don’t use many blues as I rarely have a blue orchid to paint.
I have all my colours out on a large palette so I can see the colour range that I need immediately and I find that I can mix most colours from them. The colours always on my palette are Quinacridone magenta, Perylene Maroon, Permanent rose, Scarlet lake, Light red, Winsor violet, Winsor orange, Winsor yellow deep, Yellow ochre, French ultramarine, Cerulean blue and Sap green. Occasionally I use the beautifully named but possible fugitive Opera Rose too!
After I have finished painting, I dry the flowers between blotting paper and boards, along with the name, date and award on a sticky label. Then I fold them into a newspaper envelope and attach a label on and send them back to the Herbarium at Wisley. By the time I have finished with the orchids they are often mouldy and rotten but I pack them up all the same and leave it to the specialists to decide whether they are OK to keep.
I like some orchids a lot but there are some I dread to see at meetings and that I secretly hope won’t be awarded! For instance, Bulbophyllums are pollinated by flies and smell of rotting meat – not something I particularly want to store in my fridge. They even look quite sinister.
I have a love-hate relationship with Stanhopeas. While I think they are beautiful structurally and their colours can be really intense, they are hard to capture at their best. They tend to flower for just a day or two when the weather is at its warmest, which often means they are past their best by the time I get them home.
I have also enjoyed painting the more delicate species orchids too. I especially like to have the whole plant. With Botanical Certificate orchids, where time allows, I try to give a bit more scientific detail than I would usually with Award of Merit orchid, where the size, shape and consistency of an orchid is important.
I certainly get real satisfaction out of seeing the orchid appear on the paper and making it as accurate as possible.
I hope also to bring the beauty and interest of orchids to a wider audience and in my own way and ultimately contribute to their conservation.
I have been very fortunate to meet lots of interesting orchid professionals and enthusiasts. The late Brian Rittershausen from Burnham Nurseries was a long-standing member of the Committee when I joined. Ellis Eyre was a fiercely enthusiastic and talented orchid grower and a great character.
My work as an orchid artist has presented me with several opportunities outside the Orchid Committee. I regularly paint orchids for Kew Gardens and also for the Eric Young Orchid Foundation in Jersey. I have been lucky to participate and exhibit in many interesting orchid-related events such as the European Orchid Congress and the World Orchid Conference.
To date I have painted almost 500 paintings of orchids for the RHS Orchid Committee. They are the most recent additions to the Orchid Committee paintings at the RHS Lindley Library where they are stored along with the 7,000 others in the collection, which dates back to 1897. My work is exhibited yearly by the Lindley Library at the London Orchid Show, and regularly at other shows wherever possible.
I don’t imagine I will be able to reach Nellie Robert’s enormous and almost unbeatable achievement of 56 years. I hope I will be able to continue in the near future and that when I am finished there will be a new artist to continue in the role and enjoy it as much as I have and I think that Nellie did too.