Miss Willmott’s Orchids

Kew Orchid Festival 2023 (c) Sandra Lawrence

A couple of days ago I visited the annual Orchid Festival at Kew. It’s a sight to behold, this year celebrating the flora (and fauna) of Cameroon, with orchids used en masse, almost like bedding to create rivers and waterfalls of blooms in a dazzling riot of colour. I highly recommend it, it is just the tonic for a grey February…

It got me thinking of Ellen Willmott’s orchids. We don’t know too much about them really, but I recently turned up a few photographs to join the one, precious colour autochrome we already knew about, and I cheekily wondered whether the experts at Kew might be able to help identify at least some of those we now have pictures of.

Kew Orchid Festival 2023 (c) Sandra Lawrence

I have Kew orchideers Mike Fay and Mark Chase to thank for the identifications in this post; I am extremely grateful. It’s always been a real problem for a non-scientist like me as it seems that Latin names have changed several times since Ellen’s day. Certainly it appears that that 1908 plant list we rocked up in 2019 wasn’t much help here.

The exact location of Ellen’s orchid house at Warley is not known, but we believe it was to the north of the walled garden, at the top of the hill, just behind the pergola made famous by Alfred Parsons. You can just see it behind the structure in the painting.

Warley Place by Alfred Parsons Public Domain

It is almost entirely overgrown now, but there are very faint remains of a fountain in there and, if it’s the one I’m thinking of, there are a few black and red floor tiles left in the eastern end of it, alongside a single piece of cast-iron heating vent.

Warley Place (c) Sandra Lawrence

We do know it was one of the very last hothouses to be abandoned and was used right up to her death in 1935.

Ellen took hundreds of plant portrait photographs and I am absolutely sure that the orchid images we have recently found will not be the last of them. As usual, they are in appalling condition, but let’s face it, it’s more than we had before.

I’m not going to focus heavily on each plant, as I’m a historian, not a horticulturalist. I am hoping this this will inspire my fellow Friend-in-Willmott GardenHistoryGirl to do her thing and dig into contemporary journals to find them…

Let’s start with that autochrome, taken by Ellen, probably some time around 1907. It’s unusual for her – we don’t have any other colour plant portraits like it.

Luckily I happened to have it on my phone when I met Mike, and he was able to identify it as Stanhopea, probably S. tigrina. It’s from Mexico and appears to have been first described in 1838. Here’s one today:

Stanhopia tigrina Image: Creative Comms A & B Larsen

The first of Ellen’s monochrome images would have been taken in her makeshift studio – a hothouse with a photographic backdrop, of a pastoral scene with ballustrading and painterly flowers.

Image: (c) The Berkeley Family and Spetchley Gardens Trust

Mike and Mark have identified this orchid as the South American Trichopilia (probably T. suavis), which can be found from Costa Rica to Colombia and was introduced to Europe in 1850.

Trichopilia suavis Image Creative Comms Orchis

I have only a terrible image of this species Dendrobium, but other, better copies may yet turn up.

Image: (c) The Berkeley Family and Spetchley Gardens Trust

It may have looked like this:

Dendrobium sp, Image: Creative Comms Alejandro Bayer Tamayo

Another Dendrobium may be D. speciosum, from eastern Australia…

Image: (c) The Berkeley Family and Spetchley Gardens Trust

…but Mike’s not sure as it is, apparently, rather ‘depauperate’ (underdeveloped).

Moving swiftly on, Mystery Orchid Number Five is again taken against Ellen’s photographic backdrop, though it’s a bit too close to see the glamorous, painterly scene.

Image: (c) The Berkeley Family and Spetchley Gardens Trust

Mike tells me this is a Calanthe (= Phaius) (tankervilleae) ,from tropical and sub-tropical southeast Asia. Here is one today:

Our next mystery orchid is rather different from the previous samples.

Image: (c) The Berkeley Family and Spetchley Gardens Trust

Apparently it is a Phalaenopsis hybrid. Mike thinks it is possibly P. stuartiana x P. amabilis.

I am always stumped by the sheer variety of orchid species. I wasn’t sure if Mike and Mark would be able to ID the next mystery as it’s a little overexposed…

Image: (c) The Berkeley Family and Spetchley Gardens Trust

…but they tell me it’s a Coelogyne, probably C. cristata, which look a bit like this today:

Ellen’s orchid house would have been overflowing, much like every other part of her garden. The next image, however…

Image: (c) The Berkeley Family and Spetchley Gardens Trust

…isn’t in the orchid house at all, but taken in the conservatory at Warley. I don’t know whether or not to be worried that I can recognise the blurred background of a ruined winter garden but can’t tell an orchid when I see one (I accidentally sent Mike a couple of images that definitely weren’t Orchis…) At least I got this one right – it is a Zygopetalum crinitum, from South America and particularly Brazil, identified by George Loddiges in 1831 and still magnificent today.

This Phragmipedium was also brought into Ellen’s conservatory to be photographed.

Image: (c) The Berkeley Family and Spetchley Gardens Trust

Mike thinks it is probably P. Sedenii – the hybrid between P. longifolium and P. schlimii.

P. Sedenii Image 香港沙田洋蘭展

The lighting on the next mystery orchid is strange. I can’t work out whether it’s a really sunny day and Ellen’s damped down the light, or one of her night shots.

Image: (c) The Berkeley Family and Spetchley Gardens Trust

However she took it, Mike tells me it is either Paphiopedilum exul or a hybrid of P. exul and another species. Here are a couple of modern images of Paphiopedilum exul for comparison, by day:

Paphiopedilum exul Image David Eickh

and by ‘night’ (sort of…)

Paphiopedilum exul Image: Rolfe

I’ll leave you today with a couple of Ellen’s still life compositions. The first is collection of three orchids, again taken in Warley’s conservatory:

Image: (c) The Berkeley Family and Spetchley Gardens Trust

Which Mike has identified as Laelia (probably L. rubescens):

Laelia rubescens Image: Creative Comms Orchis

Zygopetalum crinitum:

Zygopetalum crinitum Image: RTBG

Paphiopedilum (probably P. exul) and Phragmipedium Sedenii.

The second is a composition made in her greenhouse studio, against the famous backdrop:

Image: (c) The Berkeley Family and Spetchley Gardens Trust

It’s a mixed assemblage of Narcissus aff. bulbocodium, Iris sp. (or a hybrid), Ophrys sp.:

Ophrys sp Image: Bernard Dupont

and Himantoglossum robertianum (= Barlia robertiana):

Himantoglossum robertianum (c) Hans Hillewaert

I’m absolutely sure more of Ellen’s photos of orchids will turn up – there are thousands more images to look at, so poor Mike will probably get another call and there will be more posts. In the meanwhile, I’d love to know more about these individual orchids, so do please chat to me in the comments.

There is also a specific orchid named for Ellen by Joseph Colman, of mustard fame – but that must be for another day…

Kew Orchid Festival 2023 (c) Sandra Lawrence


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