I recently had the immense pleasure of talking with Professor Michael Fay, Head of the Conservation Genetics team at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and orchideer extraordinaire. Mike and his colleague Mark Chase were kind enough to look at some of Ellen Willmott’s photos of orchids and help identify what they were.
It took a few days for it to sink in for me that Mike was being my very own Mr Bean…
Ellen’s photographs are a puzzle. There are, at a conservative estimate, around 10,000 of them (in reality far more) and we still don’t know quite how much more there is to uncover. Virtually none of them are labelled. That doesn’t mean to say that Ellen didn’t write what they were on the backs – far from it – but that as things currently stand, she might as well not have bothered.
Her thousands of images of people, places, castles, stately homes, events, oddities – most of all gardens and plants – often have numbers on the back. However, the one thing we haven’t found is the magic key to what those numbers mean.
I live in hope. There is still at least one tantalising locked box and one locked cupboard that remain unpicked – and stuff does turn up. Here’s Karen trying to get into the locked box:
The code will probably be in some sort of notebook but I never give up on the idea of aged parchment engraved with rusted gall-oak ink. I basically live in National Treasure…
Until we find the key to that code, however, we’re having to rely on specialist knowledge. Sometimes that knowledge comes from our individual enthusiasms outside WillmottLand, and let’s face it most people can usually ID something that only they would recognise…
Increasingly, however, we are running out of weird personal hobbies and relying on generous experts beyond our individual scopes.
This is not unprecedented. Ellen herself did exactly that. She famously had 100,000 varieties of plant in her garden (in reality a still-respectable 10,000 – a 1912 journal article with digital-point typo has been widely quoted for the past century and, indeed, widely believed until Willmott expert John Cannell checked it against an actual plant list…)
Everyone went to Ellen for plant IDs – but where does an expert go to for the really tough stuff?
Every time Karen and I rocked up one of dozens of notes from a Mr Bean, we enjoyed a little giggle. Aw, c’mon it’s a lovely image – an earnest Ellen Willmott consulting a bumbling Rowan Atkinson over obscure daffodil varieties…
Of course, we knew that Mr Bean was in reality William Jackson Bean, who would eventually become curator at Kew.
Mr Bean began as a trainee gardener at the Royal Botanic Gardens and worked his way through the ranks, including sub-foreman in the Palm House and – yay for continuity – Orchid Houses.
He became foreman of the Temperate House before moving to the Arboretum in 1892.
Bean worked at Kew for 45 years and knew Ellen very well. We have amassed 23 packets of correspondence from Kew, and it’s still turning up.
Not all the letters are from Mr Bean, of course, as Ellen knew everyone there, including directors William Thistleton-Dyer, David Prain and Arthur Hill, who I’ll deal with in other posts; they each had their own ‘interesting’ relationships with her.
Mr Bean’s letters to Ellen are short and crisp, sometimes just telling her the ID of a plant she’s left for him on her last visit:
Others are turning out to be toughies and he needs more information.
A few she would have awaited with some anxiety as she had submitted plants that she was hoping were new to science.
Sometimes they were, in which case he was keen to have examples for the Botanic Gardens – here is her suggested list of rhododendron donations from her latest haul, probably courtesy of Ernest Wilson, and marked by Bean with the ones he wants:
And no, we haven’t found the code-key to identifying the rhodos, either. Rhodendron experts, please get in touch – we have pics and we have a whole bunch of the actual plants still flowering at Warley…
Other letters thank Ellen for sundry arrivals. Famously, she also donated a couple of herbals to the archive, which are still there, though they have been re-catalogued so they’re harder to find than they once were. Their journey across London will justify a separate post in itself, but frankly could read like a Mr Bean script.
Actually, no. Even Mr Bean could have done better than the removal experts Ellen actually seems to have got in.
But that is for another day.
So – my hugely enjoyable interactions with Mike Fay and Mark Chase, checking the identity of plants have been vindicated. It’s only what Ellen herself would have done.